The 3 common traps expats fall into when trying to learn a language

Insights from professionals
Published on 2019-09-19 at 11:18 by Anne-Lise Mty
You want to go abroad or have just settled there. You are wondering how to integrate well and most of all be able to communicate with the locals and other foreigners? Perhaps you are even looking for a job that requires speaking another language.. Learning the local language seems like the most natural thing to do. But a lot of us get discouraged really fast. In fact, after 2 years living abroad very few English-speaking people do speak the local language. For some of us this means, less professional and personal development opportunities. Personally this meant not being hired by anyone when I first moved to the German-speaking part of Switzerland. If you want to make the most of your experience abroad, you are going to need to avoid the 3 traps most expats fall into - including me a few years ago. For each of them I will give you an alternative and well as a concrete action you can take right now for immediate results.

Not going local

Not talking about food here but about people!

This is the main reason why expats don't learn the local language: they only hang out with people who speak their mother tongue.

There is something reassuring about forming a circle of English-speaking people when miles away from home. By all means you should also have these people in your network.

However, if you want to succeed in learning the local language, you should also be part of a group of locals or of foreigners who are trying to integrate into the country and you are making the effort of learning the local language.

PRO TIP: the Meetup platform and Facebook groups are great places to meet locals, as well as finding group activities you'll enjoy doing.

Taking your sweet time

I'll explain!

Most people who are able to successfully learn the local language are the ones who have made it their priority from the get go.


Because wanting to learn a new language is like wanting a new tattoo. If you don't do it right when you have the urge, chances are you'll never go through with it! There is just something tiring about keeping an idea in our head for a long period of time without acting on it. Eventually we just give up.

So my advice would be to start right when you land, because these 3 to 6 months invested early on in learning the local language will allow you to then have more time to devote to other projects and leverage this new skillset.

I know what you're thinking right now: " yeah well between the move, adapting to a new environment and taking care of the family, I just don't have the time!" To that I would answer: " 10 minutes a day is better than 0 minute a day, and you know it ;-)"

PRO TIP: the most ideal time to slowly start learning the local language is actually when you are still in your home country. When you will arrive at destination you will already be in a positive learning mood. You'll recognize a few words on street signs and you'll even understand bits and pieces of conversations happening at the local grocery store. This first small win will fuel your motivation to go further with the language.

Staying in a negative state of mind (willingly or unwillingly)

What do you think happens when we constantly are told that we won't succeed because it's "too hard" or you're "just not good with languages", or you're "<INSERT EXCUSE>?

These preconceived ideas come left and right from our friends, family, strangers, the media and most of all...from ourselves! We are programed to think that learning a language is a difficult task and so it becomes our reality.

While we cannot control what everybody else thinks, we have the power to change our own beliefs. We owe it to ourselves.

I'm not saying learning a language is all rainbows and unicorns. I'm saying there is a big difference between being negative and being realistic. Anticipating challenges that can arise is a good thing as long as we focus on finding a solution. To elaborate on a famous president's quote: "Yes we can...if we want to!"

PRO TIP: Whether you think you can learn a language or you think you can't, either way you are right. So start believing you can and start believing in yourself!