Learning the language may not be a top priority for you when you relocate. There is so much else to do particularly in those early weeks and months.
However, as expats Dawn and Kate discovered, not knowing the language can be a huge barrier to integration and leave us feeling isolated in our new communities.
“The language barrier here [in Montreal] makes everyday tasks more challenging. It can lead to you feeling frustrated and like you’re failing to integrate in to your local neighbourhood” Dawn, UK Expat in Montreal *
“I found it difficult not to know how things worked when we first arrived. It seemed to take such a long time to organise activities for my children, like swimming lessons and skating lessons. The information on the internet was limited, and I was too scared to use the phone in case people expected me to speak French.” Kate, UK Expat in Montreal *
Recognising street signs, labels in supermarkets, reading menus, being able to communicate with shop assistants and your neighbours all help to make what is an unfamiliar environment feel less scary and bring a greater sense of belonging.
If possible learn some key words and phrases before you arrive. Watching films or listening to the radio are both great ways to get your ‘ear in’. However, if you don’t have chance, don’t worry. There’s still time!
Once you’ve arrived try out some of the tips below. Even if you are the most linguistically challenged, you will soon be armed with a few key words and phrases, and be on your way to feeling more at home
1. Post it notes
When we first arrived in Montreal, I decorated our temporary apartment with post-it notes. Every fixed item from the ceiling to the floor had a French label stuck to it. We looked, we recited and we learnt the French for more than 150 household objects. Until the time came to move on to our more permanent accommodation and the post-its had lost their stick. ‘Fork’, ‘knife’, ‘window’, ‘door’ all remain firmly lodged in my family’s French vocabulary.
2. Language tea
Decide on a regular slot, once or twice a week when you can practise talking in the language you are learning. Ideally, this would be a time when you already come together as a family or with a group of friends, over a meal for example. Initially you might only be able to say ‘hello’ to each other and ‘salt please’, but over time as your confidence and vocabulary grows you might actually be able to share with each other what you did that day.
3. TV or Radio, or anything that you listen to!
I don’t watch television very often, so telling me to watch French TV was never going to improve my French. If you do, this is a great way to learn a language. I (strongly) encourage that my children watch ten minutes French TV before they watch a programme in English. My son has grown to love French cartoons.
When I’m in the house or the car, I have the radio set to a French station. I only understand maybe 50% on a good day, but listening has really helped my pronunciation and understanding. I’ve even set our SatNav to French, and not got lost too often!
If you have a smart phone, then you have access to a number of great free, and easy to use language apps. Memrise, Busuu and Duolingo to name but a few. For Duolingo, for example you don’t even have to create an account. Just open the app, chose the language you want to learn and you can start straight away. It takes you through a short evaluation to determine your level and then you work through different topics, moving on to more difficult tasks as you progress.
One thing I have learnt with language learning is that if you want to improve you need to practice daily. Apps are particularly helpful in supporting this, because as long as you have your phone, you can practice. A few minutes on the bus or waiting for an appointment, gives you time to complete a lesson. Apps like these will also send you a nudge to remind you get back to it, if you haven’t been active for a couple of days.
5. Socialise in the language you are learning
Research shows people learn best when they are enjoying themselves.
Think about a hobby that you either currently do, or would like to do. Rather than taking up that hobby in your native language, join a group that speaks the language you are trying to learn. Socialising with people who speak French and not being afraid to make mistakes is where I have made the greatest progress.
My daughter loves swimming so she swims with a French club. Because she swims in Montreal the instruction is bilingual, but to socialise with her peers in the changing room she has to speak French. It’s amazing how quickly people, especially children learn another language when they want to fit in. She has learnt as much French at her swimming club as she has at school, where her lessons are in French, but her peers speak English in the school yard.
I have a French friend that I run with. She wants to practice her English as much as I want to practice my French. Each run we do together, we alternate the language we speak.
*Montreal is in Quebec, Canada where the official language in French though many people are bilingual – French and English.
Do you have any tips for learning a language for free? If you’ve relocated and had to learn a new language in order to integrate, please share. I’d love to hear your ideas and stories in the comments below.
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