Relocating Internationally for Work? 5 Important Questions to Consider

Relocating overseas for work is an exciting opportunity: you’ll get the chance to experience a brand new country and its culture while expanding your international business prospects. However, between shipping your belongings, acquiring a visa, and finding new housing, it can be stressful, too. Especially if you’re going to live in a country whose dominant language is not your native tongue, you may wonder how to best prepare for the big move. Read on for advice on how and when to get your language skills up to scratch for your relocation to a non-English speaking country.

relocation_image1Moving overseas, or to a foreign language-speaking country? Here’s some information you should know. Image via Beth Kanter / flickr

1. Is it better to take classes before leaving or after arriving?

To really maximize your language skills, it’s best to take classes both before and after arriving in a new country. It’s especially important to prepare before the move: given that some of the most challenging experiences occur when you first move (e.g., finding housing, schools, doctors; understanding public transportation, the grocery store, etc.), it’s important that your language skills are up to par.

With the stress of adjusting to a new job and city, it may be hard to find time for language classes in the first few months after moving. However, taking a language course after your arrival can be a great asset, as your language teacher can serve as both a linguistic and cultural guide. Especially if this is your first time living in a country that speaks the language, your language teacher can clear up any doubts that will inevitably rise in your first few months of adjusting to a new culture and language.

Agnieszka, a Polish teacher at Language Trainers who relocated to England after growing up in Poland, weighs in on when it’s best to take language classes:

It would be good to learn a language to at least a basic level before moving and then continue studying when you get there (which will be easier because you will be surrounded by the language!). If you grab every chance at learning the language, especially when you’ve already got the basics and you’re in the new country, it will come naturally.

2. What are some ways that I can work on my language skills at home, before I move?

Aside from taking classes, there are plenty of ways that you can get in foreign language practice before moving day. One great way is to watch movies — in addition to being a great introduction to the cinematic culture of the country where you’ll be living, foreign films help you see how the language is used in real-life, non-classroom settings. For some suggestions of movies specifically selected for language learners, check out our foreign-language film reviews.

For the self-motivated learner, a high-quality course book can be an excellent investment. Modern course books come with plenty of engaging exercises, and many feature audio components, so you can practice your listening skills, too. To see our favorite course books for over twenty languages, take a look at our language course book reviews.

relocation_image2You’ll be glad you practiced beforehand when you have to deal with the endless paperwork and formalities upon arriving at your new home. Image via Wikipedia

3. At my new job, I will still almost exclusively use my native language. How can I get in some extra language practice after moving?

Brie, a recent transplant to Argentina, remarks that, despite living in a Spanish-speaking country, it’s easy to spend the whole day using only English. Most people who are relocated for work still use their native language in the workplace, and at home, people use their native language when talking to their friends and family. This can make it hard to engage with the host country and can inhibit language progress.

Even in your busy life, it’s easy to avoid getting in the habit of using only English. Conversation exchange services allow you to meet up with like-minded language learners who can help you learn your new language. Similarly, check out events hosted by local bars or restaurants — many offer language-learning opportunities such as bilingual nights, which give you a chance to interact with native speakers. Daniela, a native English speaker who recently moved to Germany and took German classes with Language Trainers, stresses that you shouldn’t be afraid to talk to native speakers, even if your level in that language is low. “You will improve significantly by talking and listening to people when they talk to you,” she says. “Try to repeat in your head what you hear.”

Finally, when it comes to language learning, every little bit counts: even just a few minutes a day adds up and can be a great help down the line. Consider, for example, making a playlist of foreign-language songs on your iPod and listening to it during your daily commute. Our collection of foreign-language song reviews has plenty of great tunes chosen specifically for learners. This serves the dual purpose of introducing you to the music of your new culture, in addition to improving your comprehension skills.

4. Should I participate in cultural training before the move?

Cultural training provides employees with the necessary skills and tools to communicate effectively in a foreign marketplace whose norms and customs may be different from those of their home country. Cultural training involves the development of “soft” skills, which is applicable to a variety of business contexts such as appropriate etiquette for business lunches, norms regarding interpersonal space, and guidelines for formal letter-writing.

In addition, cultural training provides information and advice regarding more general situations that you will encounter in your daily life. Not sure if you should greet a stranger with a handshake or a kiss on the cheek? Want to know how much you should tip your waiter? Wondering about more general questions of gender relations and social equality? These are the types of tricky issues that cultural training tackles.

Rhonda Dekker is the Corporate Account Manager of Australiawide Relocations, who used Language Trainers’ English courses for a client who had recently moved from Thailand to Australia for work. As she explains, whether or not cultural training is a crucial investment depends on how different the culture of your new country is compared to what you are used to:

Understanding business culture directly impacts how successful an expat assignment will be for the company. Understanding the social culture is … very important for both work and settling in.

Thus, it’s advisable to do some research regarding the business and social climate in your new country. If it appears to be quite distinct from that of your current home, cultural training may be a worthwhile investment.

5. Is it really that important to learn the foreign language?

relocation_image3Whether you’re brushing up on a language you’re already familiar with or learning a brand new language from scratch, it’s a good idea to learn some new words and phrases before the big move. Image via Pixabay

English is rapidly growing as the world’s lingua franca, and every day it becomes easier to find pocket of English-speaking expatriates in countries all over the world. These communities are often large and supportive, and have connections to English-speaking doctors, real estate agents, and other services like schools. Given the availability of English speakers, you may ask yourself if it’s worth it to go through with learning a brand new language.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that, in most foreign countries, English is still spoken primarily by a small, highly educated subset of the general population. In India and China, for instance, less than 10 percent of the population speaks English proficiently. Even in Western European countries like France, Italy, and Spain — popular business and tourist destinations for English speakers — the majority of the population does not speak English, with proficiency rates of 39, 34, and 22 percent, respectively.

Your community of English-speaking expats will be able to help you find English speakers for basic, necessary services, such as doctors. It’s far less likely, though, that the nurses and receptionists at the hospital will have such a good command of the language. And what if you want a second opinion, or need to see a specialist? Requiring an English speaker will significantly limit your options. Further, you almost certainly won’t be able to use English with other people that you deal with regularly, such as your local grocer or your bus driver. Thus, even within the expat bubble, you’ll have to communicate with non-English speakers on a daily basis.

Agnieszka, our veteran Polish teacher who moved from Poland to the UK, has seen first-hand what happens when people relocate to a new country and never leave the expat bubble:

I’ve heard and seen it so many times in the Polish communities in the UK: Polish people come here, often invited by friends who are also Polish; they start renting a room/flat/house with some other Polish people; they install Polish satellite dish to watch Polish TV; they only go shopping in Polish shops … and so, after 10 years of living here, they barely know how to say ‘hello’. So to sum up – learn the local language for your own sake; it will make things easier for you in the long run!

Learning the language will affect both your personal and your professional life. If you speak only English, it can be hard to make international connections, or develop professional relationships with your coworkers. Indeed, your colleagues in your new country may speak English during the workday, but what if they invite you to get drinks after work? Not learning their language will severely inhibit your ability to connect with your coworkers outside of the workplace, thus preventing you from expanding your professional network on the international stage.

John Calder, the Integration Financial Controller of Huntsman Corporation who recently relocated to Germany, took Language Trainers German classes both before and after his relocation. He agrees that learning the language will help you on both a personal and professional level:

Learning the language will not only increase your ability to communicate, understand cultural nuances and ultimately do your job, but it will also give you greater appreciation for your foreign assignment because you will absorb more from new perspectives.

Relocating for work is a big life change, and this is only multiplied when moving to a non-English speaking country. But ultimately, it’s a decision that can open doors for you, enabling you to experience a different part of the world and make new international connections. Ready to get started? Assess your skills with our free foreign-language level tests, and check out our course and package information for relocations. Whether you want to learn just the basics or you’re aiming for total proficiency, learning the language of your new home is a guaranteed way to expand your horizons, both personally and professionally.

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