Breaking Down the Language Barrier

If you are an American and have decided on an expat destination in a non-English speaking country, you have probably done extensive background research, and may have already visited once, or even several times. You may also have done some language study on your own, using a resource like Rosetta Stone, or taken language classes at a local college.

However, too few expatriating Americans ever do the most effective single kind of language preparation possible, which is to take a "language vacation" in their chosen country before moving there. This is a brand new idea for most Americans, so let me elaborate a bit.

Immerse Yourself

Every country in the world has a selection of total immersion language training centers. These are private institutions where you check in for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and are then totally immersed in the language and culture of the country.

From the moment you enter the front doors, you will not speak a word of English. Even though you may not understand a word of the language of the country, that is all you will hear (and begin to understand and speak) from Day One. If you haven't ever had the immersion experience, but remember with anguish the language-learning experiences you may have had in school, rest assured that the two experiences are completely different. Language and cultural immersion are a proven method of getting up to speed in some of the most intimate aspects of the society where you have chosen to live, and will be one of the best investments you can possibly make.

Here's why: After even a week of immersion, you will have enough command of the language to hold simple conversations with anyone in your new home country.

Even though they may speak English as a second or third language - as a great many educated people do the world over - the fact that you (especially as an American) are able to go beyond "hello" and "please pass the salt" will make a tremendous impression on them with regard to your sincerity and willingness to go the extra distance in forming a relationship with them. You will also automatically distinguish yourself from the hundreds of other American expats and business visitors trying to make a go of it in this society, wherever it is.

Whether your objective is to do business or simply settle into a new life in China, Thailand, Turkey, Germany, Mexico, Brazil or wherever you choose, your ability to hold even an elementary conversation in the language of the country will give you a definite advantage.

The second benefit to taking a language immersion vacation is that immersion school owners are almost always very well tied into the social and cultural life of their city, and as a result of your stay with them, they will get to know you and be able to open doors for you that would take you years to discover and open by yourself.

The third benefit is a little less straightforward, but nevertheless valuable. It is the fact that, although you may be able to speak only at an elementary level after a week or two of immersion, your ability to understand what is being said will far exceed your ability to speak.

As an example of how important this is, I would like to share a personal experience...

"Spreekt u Nederlands?"

I spent two years in the 1990s working in The Netherlands for a consulting and training firm. My job was to coordinate with their English-speaking clients, largely British, but also American, Singaporean and Australian. This meant that, according to my Dutch colleagues, there was no reason at all for me to learn Dutch. (After all, they told me when I brought up the subject that almost everybody in the Netherlands speaks a little English - in fact, many speak it perfectly - and my client base all spoke English, so it would be a complete waste of my time and effort to learn Dutch.) Furthermore, they pointed out, all our business meetings were conducted in English, so what's the big deal?

Nevertheless, I have always enjoyed learning new languages and so I set about teaching myself Dutch.

It soon became clear that nobody in my company was interested in practicing with me. Every time I tried to speak with a colleague in Dutch, they would respond in English, and when I asked them to please help me by speaking Dutch with me, I invariably got some variation of "Why bother?"

Finally, one day my friend Oscar took me aside and said, "Look, we appreciate it that you want to learn Dutch, but sometimes we like to be able to talk among ourselves without anyone else understanding what we are saying. No offense - I'm sure you can understand."

That did it for me.

I took a one-week vacation, signed myself into a language immersion school in The Hague, and after a week I re-appeared at the office without a word of where I had been. "Just doing a bit of traveling," I said when asked.

For the next few weeks, things went along pretty much like before, except now I was able to understand most of what was being said when my Dutch colleagues were talking among themselves. I had a lot of fun with all this, and then I decided to spring a little friendly trap.

I was asked to give a short presentation to the Board of Directors of the firm, and when the time came I did so - in Dutch. Although my Dutch wasn't perfect, I did well enough that afterwards several Board members came up to me to say that they didn't realize that their firm had a multi-lingual American on board, and to congratulate me on my command of Dutch.

Most important, from my perspective, was that they said all of this to me in Dutch.

Needless to say, my colleagues who were present were left with their mouths hanging open just a bit, and I noticed from that point on that their conversations in Dutch usually either included me… or they seemed to be a lot more cautious in discussing things in front of me that perhaps I wasn't meant to hear.

So, while on the one hand, by revealing my slight command of the language I was immersed more completely into the company culture and society, on the other hand, I was suddenly seen as a foreigner around whom it paid to be discreet. A double-edged sword to be sure, but being able to speak Dutch made life much more interesting and fun outside the office as well, so it was well worth the effort.

Finding What You Want

There are literally thousands of immersion language schools worldwide, and they vary widely, so do your homework.

If you already know where you want to go for immersion training, then a simple keyword search such as "immersion, language, school, (name of country/city)" will bring up plentiful options. If you want to cast a wider net, then for Spanish training, for example, search keywords "immersion, language, school, Spanish". (And for country-specific search engines, see my last article on Internet resources for the International Man.)

If you would like a central website from which you can explore a lot of options, try

This isn't a recommendation. I have never worked with these folks, but they have a well-designed website with a lot of information and links, and it looks like a good place to start.

While your language vacation has a purpose, it doesn't have to be "all work and no play". Some language centers include optional side trips to local points of interest or cultural events. Some may offer the opportunity to live in a local family's home. Keep searching until you find exactly what you want, where you want.

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