Learning the local language

One of the challenges an expat often faces when moving abroad is the local language. In a time when you are trying to settle into a new host country and culture learning a new language might seem too much of a challenge. And when you go to, say, Denmark or the Netherlands, many also assume that they actually don’t really need the language. Why go through the trouble?

Why go through the trouble?
It is true that the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries top the list in terms of English proficiency. In fact, the Netherlands and Denmark are number 1 and 2 of the list, and both fall in the category ‘very high proficiency’. Another consideration is that Dutch and Danish are small languages that are not that much use outside of the country (though there are some unexpected benefits, like having a secret language so you can freely discuss anything and anyone without needing to worry much about who might overhear).

Making local friends
A strong argument for putting in the effort of learning the language is that it makes it easier for you to make local friends. And this is something that expats find particularly hard in countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark. I am currently analyzing 72 interviews I’ve done with expats across the globe, and many of them comment on the importance of learning the language. A German expat in Greece says:

If you want to make REAL friends and not only good acquaintances, then you have to have the language. If you want to win the heart of somebody, learn the language.

Speaking the language opens doors
And this is my experience as well. I have seen it both in the Netherlands and in Denmark that even though people are supposedly fluent in English, they prefer to speak their own language, especially in informal meetings – even if someone is present who doesn’t speak the language. So, if you want to be part of this social circle, better start learning the language! Even speaking a few words can open some doors – or get some laughs, as this Polish expat in France says:

I think that it shows that you are interested in their culture, in their country or whatever. This also opens doors for you. Because even if you don´t speak the language properly, even a little bit of the language opens a lot of doors. […] Even if your language is very bad, you can have a laugh from the others.

Image of language by Shawn Econo via Flickr.

Leave a Reply