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How to Navigate a New Country When You don't Speak the Language

Two young people demonstrating a lively conversationImage CC 3.0 via Wikimedia

It's 4:30 on a Friday. Your boss calls you into her office to tell you that you are being transferred to Germany, or China, or Saudi Arabia to open a new office. Your first reaction is excitement. It's an amazing opportunity, a big boost in pay, and a chance to let your children see the world. There's just one problem, though. You don't speak German, or Mandarin, or Arabic and you only have a month. 

What should you do if you don't speak the language?

It would be far too obvious to say that moving overseas, especially to a non-English speaking country, is far more of an upheaval than moving within the U.S., but if you add the lack of language skills to it, it becomes even more formidable. It doesn't have to be. With just a month's notice, you probably won't learn the language before you leave, but you can still communicate. Here's what you should do, both before you arrive and after.

Learn some key phrases

Download an app like Babble to hear proper pronunciations of certain key phrases. The good thing is that apps like that focus on the most helpful phrases, such as ordering from a menu or asking directions. Learning the pronunciations is a big step toward communicating with your new country mates.

Seek out English speaking people

English is the official language of the United Nations, which means that unless you are in a very remote location, you'll find English speaking people. Still, you'll want to communicate in the native tongue, unless you want to be seen as a permanent tourist. Immerse yourself in the culture. You'll find that in town squares, or in coffee shops, or craft classes, that many people will sympathize with your plight and do the best they can to communicate with you. 

Take a language class

While you can learn the language from the privacy of your own home, a class gives you the opportunity to meet people -- even fellow English speakers. 

Download a translator

Apps like Hello Talk allow you to translate in real time. Speak English into your phone and the app will translate for your listener. It works both ways too. The person you are talking to can speak into your phone, and the app will translate it to English. This is only a temporary solution, though. You'll want to learn the language as quickly as you can.

Turn on the TV

You've probably heard stories of people learning Spanish through watching telenovelas. When watched with subtitles, it's an especially realistic way of learning the language. While some language classes lean formal, popular entertainment is conversational. It can teach you the way people really talk in your new home. 

With time, you will learn the language. Unless you barricade yourself in your apartment or house, the language will come naturally. With the tips above, though, you can help speed it along. 

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