Last update on December 20, 2018

How easy is it to learn the language of your host country? Do locals lend a helping hand, and are they patient enough? Here are the results of our Expatica language learning poll.

Nearly 150 expats living across Europe responded to our language learning poll. The results show that, despite help (or lack thereof) from locals and integration programmes, most expats begin to learn the local language through a combination of methods

Dear locals: work with me here

Across the board, when it comes to locals helping expats learn their language, patience and interaction can vary. Although over half of expats polled hovered around locals being somewhat easy or somewhat difficult to practice conversing with, only 18 percent agree it’s easy to do.

The Netherlands are notorious for being expert English speakers that rarely continue a conversation in Dutch with a foreigner. However, it seems like persistence, or just plain stubbornness about speaking Dutch, is an expat’s best weapon against the “switch to English” dilemma.

“There is a tendency for locals to speak English if you don’t speak fluent Dutch, but they’ll speak Dutch if you insist,” wrote one expat.

Another expat living in Belgium explains: “Until you really can string a full sentence together that they understand, most locals with any skill in English will switch. But, if you extend your trials to places that aren’t used to foreigners, like my small town outside of Brussels, then they’ll stay in Dutch or French for much longer.”

Expats in France seem to experience a more patient and encouraging environment with locals, as one expat notes. “My neighbours speak slowly and generally find simpler words that we are more likely to understand while our vocabulary and local dialect is being assimilated.”

Another expat in France agrees: “Most locals don’t speak English, so I have no choice but to communicate in French. Most everyone is very patient and understanding, but there are always few that get impatient when I don’t understand.”

In Germany, living outside a major city helps some expats practice even more. “I live in a small town in Germany, so not too many people speak fluent English, especially older ones. It’s easy to use the German I have learned, but when I meet younger people they always want to practice their English with me.”

Locals in Spain tend to stick to their native tongue when conversing simply because there is no other option. “They don’t speak English, but are very friendly. When I speak in broken Spanish they don’t switch over to English, because they can’t,” explains one expat.

Getting creative with learning

Learning a language is not as cut and dried as it used to be: Books on tape have been replaced with language learning software and MP3 tracks, and class courses are equipped with online study material and multimedia guides. From using the television and newspaper to listening to the radio, expats do not hold back on getting creative when learning a language.

The majority of expats polled combine courses, resources, and plain public practicing for an effective method. Almost half agreed that informal communication is a good way to practice what is learned in any kind of course and study resources.

“I paid an arm and a leg for a 10-week course that just confused me more, and the rest I’ve gotten from listening, trying to talk, watching television, reading to up my vocabulary, and learning the music,” says one expat.

This DIY method seems to catch on among many expats. “I have taken an intensive course, studied online and spent a great deal on CDs, books and other media. I also speak as much as possible at work,” writes one expat.

Another expat learning Dutch recommends Rosetta Stone software, play-dates with local children when bringing my own children, local TV programming, daily conversations with my children’s teachers, other parents and shopkeepers.

And of course there’s always the friendship route, as one expat swears by. “Finding a friend who will commit to speak with you in the language you’re trying to learn for at least an hour every other day will make all the difference.”.

Wanted: Government help

Could it be that these combined methods are a result of governments failing to offer courses free of charge? Seventy five percent of expats who took our poll agreed that their host government has failed to assist them in learning the local language.

Those who have received help did so via free classes available or required for integration purposes when applying for visas or residency. Countries like Denmark, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany offer free or subsidised public courses, or on some occasions at least a fifty-fifty split on the cost of language integration courses.

“The German government requires those moving to Germany to learn at least a basic level of German and provides funding for designated public courses,” one expat explains. “I found these government-funded classes completely ineffective. I left these courses and found a private school that was effective. However, I had to pay the full tuition myself; no tuition assistance was possible.”

Another expat in the Netherlands comments: “City hall did nothing to help, but the local social services office offers free classes, which it took us five months to find.” The Netherlands combine integration courses with language lessons, creating a full-fledged class on learning both the skills and history of Dutch culture.

So ditch the traditional thoughts of intensive language courses if you haven’t the time or finances and get creative. Practice on the locals even if they want to practice English with you. And if government classes aren’t available, maybe there is a better offer elsewhere. In the end, search around and try different exercises – learning a language is a road built upon motivation and many possibilities.