Learning a new language the expat mum way

If you’re an expat mum, even if you’ll only be abroad for a couple of years (which then turn into 20), you’ll be faced with the challenge of learning your new community language.

You could play it easy and only mingle with people who speak your mother tongue because ‘you’ll be going back home soon’. Just bear in mind that you may very well not be going back home as soon as you thought and that a key to an enriching and positive expat motherhood is feeling integrated with your host country.

And language is the key to that. Even if you live in a country where people are not naturally open and spontaneously friendly, nobody resists the charm of a foreigner who has taken the time to learn their language. After all, you’re a guest, at least at the beginning, so you might as well return the courtesy they’ve given you by hosting you in their country.

But, of course, I know we’re expat mums with little to no spare time. But trust me, you can learn a language with little extra time if you put your mind to it. Yes, learning a language takes time, so let’s multitask and learn it while we’re doing one of the hundred things we all do every day.

So, read on to learn my 6 steps to mastering a foreign language the expat mum way.

Step 1. Figure out why you want to learn the language

Linguists have long discussed concerning the motivations to learn a foreign language. The prevalent theory points towards two main motivating factors: integrative and instrumental.

In short, integrative motivation deals with the desire to understand a culture, language and society better. This type of motivation is known to yield better language learning results than instrumental motivation. Instrumental motivation deals with the desire to learn a new language as an instrument to achieve some other goal. The language is not the goal, but the medium.

From an expat mum standpoint, I would say that we’re all in the same boat and are mainly integratively motivated to learn the community language: be it to honour our partners, integrate into our communities better and feel less isolated, or helping our children with their homework.

Take your time to figure out why do you want to learn the new language. After all, language learning demands time and work, so you will need a reason to hold on to. In my case, I currently speak the same languages as my kids, but they will soon start learning German at school. Secret languages are meant for parents, not children! So, there you go, now you know what motivated me to start learning German.

Step 2. Change your mindset

After you’ve decided what your reason for wanting to learn your community language is, you need to rewire your mind around that reason.

What I refer to as mindset here is your attitude towards the new language and the perceived level of effort you’ll need to become conversational in your new language.

You may have been hostile towards said language maybe because you have failed to learn it in the past, or because you don’t like the way it sounds! You’ll need to change your attitude towards the language. Approach the language with an open heart. I would bet that when you start “deciphering” it, you’ll find that it’s way more beautiful than you thought. So, change your attitude towards the language and learning it. Let it in.

Learning a new language takes time and effort. Accept it. You won’t learn it overnight. Some people can do it exceptionally quickly, but that’s only in extreme cases where they immerse completely and work exclusively on that for weeks. We can all agree that’s out of the question for expat mums (or any mum for that matter). So, accept it will take time and effort and deal with it. After all, the things that matter the most in life all take time and effort.

And, as with other things that take time and effort, once you sit back and appreciate how far you’ve come, it will have been worth it.

Step 3. Get your feet wet

I firmly believe the best way to learn a new language at our stage in life is by using it as much as you can, and I will get to that on the next step.

However, to be able to at least say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ you need to have a very rudimentary grasp of the language. You need to acquire some basic vocabulary and learn a few common phrases.

You need something to build on. You need your foundations.

You could achieve this by either going to an elementary class or with my personal favourite, a language learning App on your phone and challenge yourself on a daily basis.

My all time favourite is Duolingo. It’s free, it has many languages in it and it’s just awesome. Perfect for busy expat mums. You can set your daily goal (practice 5, 10, 15 min) and progress along a “language tree”. It’s a great motivator, especially if you do it with friends and you see each other’s progress.

A word of warning. Duolingo is great for learning the basics and getting your feet wet, but it does not provide a complete learning experience.

Step 4. Speak it!

Now put your phone down, get out and talk to the person at the supermarket till. Tell them anything. Even if it’s “the bear is eating fish”.

Get it out of your system. This is the single most difficult step of learning a language: gathering the courage of actually muttering something to another human being in a language you don’t master at all and waiting to see their puzzled expression.

SPEAK IT! Make mistakes. As many as you can. Let Benny the Irish polyglot convince you.

As adults, we’re too self-conscious of our own mistakes. Some of you may feel uncomfortable speaking your community language because it would give away that you’re a foreigner. Think of your kids. How did they learn (the possible many) languages? Trial and error. And not caring about mistakes.

Don’t get the grammar and rules overwhelm you. You will not learn a new language unless you use it. When you make the effort of forming sentences and meaningful phrases, your brain starts to see the logic behind it. Even if you don’t.

Once you are able to tackle this step and you look at the grammar and rules of the language, your brain will automatically make the links and everything will make sense. Things will fall into place. Kind of like when you get to the end of “The Usual Suspects”. Now wouldn’t that be a great feeling?

Step 5. Immerse yourself

The number one advice from anyone who has ever conquered a language.

Live the language. Breathe it.

Read books, watch shows, movies.

Listen to music. I feel so lucky to have access to such a vast library of incredibly good music just for the mere fact of speaking the language. I’m thinking “Losing my religion”, “Mediterraneo”, “Autogrill” and “Formidable”.

Rest assured you’ll find excellent cultural expressions in your new language, and you’ll be grateful for having learned it.

An excellent way of immersing and using the language is engaging in Tandem sessions. It’s perfect, really, since the other person also wants to learn your mother tongue and both of you are ready to make and forgive mistakes. You can find a local tandem scheme, or just do it online.

Step 6. Don’t ever stop using it

Anyone would tell you that if you don’t use a language, you’ll lose it.

It’s true.

I use four languages on a daily basis, and I can definitely feel the difference when I don’t use one of them for a while.

As long as you’re immersed and you actively search new opportunities to use the language you’ll be fine.

Start talking to the local mums at pick up. Ask them to talk to you in their language. Make friends, they won’t care if you make an occasional mistake. They’ll appreciate you making the effort to learn the language. They always do.

So there you go, my 6 steps to learning a language the expat mum way.

I know we all have little time and energy left after we’ve finished with our super-expat-mummy duties. But if you integrate the new language in your everyday life, you need little extra effort to work towards your goal.

I think you can do 10 min a day of Duolingo. You can immerse yourself too, just watch shows or movies in the local language rather than your own. You can also talk to local mums at school pickup.

You have all the tools you need. You only need to figure out why and want to do it.

The rest will come.

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