5 Things I Learned From Working In A Country Where I Couldn’t Speak The Language

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When I moved to Spain last October, my knowledge of Spanish was limited to “Hola, que tal?” (“Hey, how are you?”).

Seven months later, I can say that I’m today able to carry on a conversation in Spanish, but I also have to admit that the first month was quite rough: I was living with a French girl who spoke next to no English, working with people who weren’t used to my Spanish accent whenever I tried to say at least something and when meeting new people, I found it hard to introduce myself due to my limited vocabulary.

A friend I met that month likes to say, “Sometimes in life you win and sometimes you learn” – and that definitely applies to my first month in Spain! To help you adjust a tiny bit better to your first month in a foreign country, I collected five things for you that I learned from working in a country where I couldn’t speak the language.

#1 Speak.

Especially in countries where not everyone is able to speak English well, most people are delighted when you at least try to say some phrases in their language. Try to learn at least basic phrases such as how to introduce yourself and don’t be shy – just give it a try!

#2 Listen.
The first four months in Madrid, I had no access to a Spanish course and so I noticed how much you can just learn through listening. Whether it’s by listening to how natives apply grammar or by picking up new phrases or specific sayings, try to concentrate and listen!

#3 Learn.
There’s a lot you can learn just by listening and try to speak, but sooner or later you will get to a point where you will need to learn the grammar in order to apply it properly. After three months in Spain, I had the feeling that just by “living Spanish” I could not advance more, I needed a Spanish course. By the way, you need to do more than just a course, though, reading grammar rules, doing exercises and noting down new vocabulary is what it takes. Check out our list of the best courses for learning online.

#4 Accept.
Personally, I consider this the greatest challenge I had to face: I was working together with people whose native language was Spanish and had no difficulties speaking it. Soon, I felt like I had to do at least as well as they were doing, but while this was certainly not possible, I was just putting myself under pressure. It may be difficult to accept, but you need to understand that it’s necessary for you to take some time to learn the language and that’s not your fault. “An accent is a sign of bravery”, is a saying I deeply believe in – and you should, too!

#5 Smile.
There’s one thing we can all communicate with whenever words don’t do it: a smile!

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  • Camille Beygui

    Awesome post

  • Miss Independent

    I am so happy I jumped on your post. And I have to tell you I know how you feel.
    I am a traveller and I speak languages, I know few. I have been living in 3 different countries for last 3 years. My first time was in Cyprus, were everyone know English, so I have had no problems. Then I ended up on Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands, and as I know Spanish I was also ok with living and working there.
    But then came this year. In April I arrived to Cefalu, city on Sicily (Italy) and I have been told I would be working with German people. Surprise surprise. Most of the people here do not speak other language than Italian (except guest who, as told, are from Germany, Switzerland, Holand etc). But people that I work with are from here and speak mostly only Italian. Same in the city, pubs, shops, everywhere. It is really difficult to find myself here. I am learning the language day by day and it is getting better with each. It is not easy, but it is not impossible ;)

    All the best for you.
    Lost in Italy Natalia :)

    • Lois

      Thank you for sharing! Sounds like an exciting experience.
      Good luck with everything, I am sure you will get there!

  • Yvonne Ashon

    Thanks for you post. Nice


  • dreamofadventures

    All of these are so true! I lived in a country where I didn’t speak the language for a few months. It always takes a lot of patience on both sides =o)


  • Raè

    I couldn’t agree more. For me, living in Spain was amazing and I grew in speaking and writing tremendously. In no way was it easy but in the end stepping out of your comfort zone is how you begin to grow! Happy learning Marie!!


  • Margaux White

    Thank you for this! It works with whatever language we learn and I totally agree that the “accept” part is the most difficult.
    Margaux ∙ http://www.bonjourwhite.com

  • Sabrina | A Trail of Glitter

    Thanks for this. I’ve been living in Spain for about 6 months now, struggling with Spanish. Mind you I live in Barcelona and with all the tourists it is possible to get by with English, but only to an extent. Just gotta practice! Watch a lot of tv, go to intercambios, get a Spanish boyfriend lol etc..


  • Lisa Rollny (start-a-kit)

    Hi Marie! Thanks for the confidence boost ;) I totally agree with your points, especially the immersion part is important when learning a new language! I salute to your bravery of moving to Madrid without knowing Spanish. so cool! I found the following website super helpful for improving your vocabulary online: http://www.50languages.com/language-mp3.html – it’s good for all kinds of languages and helps with pronunciation!

  • Karen Wanderlustingk

    Interesting. I moved abroad last year and I started a job where my job is partially in the language here (Dutch). I ended up learning enough that I was capable of reading and understand comfortably within 3 months through self-disciplined study. It depends on the position as if your job is on the line, the need to learn the language increases…a lot. I’m a bit ashamed to admit, I talk mostly in English with my colleagues, but I am proud of the fact that I never need translations. Immersion helps a lot.

  • Jil Diamante

    Yesss. Locals love it when you try to mumble or speak their dialect. :)


  • Monica Gilbert

    I moved to Japan to work with almost no knowledge of the language. It was challenging to say the least. After 2 years, I could manage to muddle through basic conversations. I can understand so much of what you’re going through, and I applaud your willingness to challenge yourself.

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