Which Language Should You Choose to Study Next?

Expats are both avid globetrotters and an impressively polyglot bunch. In last year’s Expat Insider survey, our respondents revealed their linguistic skills: 88% of expatriates are at least bilingual, and 62% speak two or more foreign languages. Nearly half (48%) also consider their local language proficiency to be fairly or very good.

True language lovers probably don’t enjoy resting on their laurels, though: knowing a couple of foreign languages might not be enough once they have whetted their linguistic appetite. Considering there are up to 7,000 languages across the globe, prospective learners are slightly spoiled for choice.

How do you decide which language to tackle next? There are plenty of reasons for cracking open a textbook or downloading an app, but the following might offer some pointers for the indecisive language enthusiast.

The Pragmatic Choice

If you are in the same situation as those Expat Insider respondents who admit to speaking the local language only a little (29%) or not at all (12%), your next step is obvious. The longer you are going to stay, the more opportunities to practice you’ll have.

This is your chance to finally go grocery-shopping at the local farmer’s market without resorting to pointing and mime, or to have some vague idea of what the angry-sounding train driver is barking through the underground’s loudspeaker system!

Even if your local language skills are pretty solid, you might be planning a trip to a neighboring country or different region where you don’t speak the language. Granted, most people are usually friendly towards hapless, linguistically confused strangers.

They are frequently even friendlier, though, if you make an effort to say “how much for a cup of coffee?” or “where’s the bus stop?” in their own language — even if you may not understand their effusive answers.

Story time: In the pre-smartphone era, I asked a kind elderly lady for the way to my hostel in very bad Japanese. To this day, I have no idea what she was telling me.

However, she closed down her little flower shop for 15 minutes, took me by the hand, and guided me to the hostel’s doorstep. Perhaps she would have done this for all lost gaijin girls, but I’d like to think my bumbling attempts at Japanese were a bit of an ice-breaker.

The Easy Choice

You would like to keep your brain active with some mental gymnastics, but don’t have much time or are easily frustrated by lack of progress? You need the linguistic equivalent of signing up for the gym next to the office and going for an exercise program that plays to your strengths!

Basically, you want a language that has something in common with your mother tongue or another language you are already fluent in. It also shouldn’t involve those parts of studying that are very labor-intensive or don’t come naturally to you.

When I was thinking about getting back into language learning, I wasn’t sure where to start. So I browsed the online catalog of the MVHS (Munich Center of Further Education), which offers an amazing range of classes, from Arabic to Vietnamese.

A friend of mine was dabbling in the MVHS Mandarin courses at that time, but I was very sure Chinese wasn’t for me. First of all, I didn’t want to memorize 6,500 common hànzì just to read a newspaper article.

Second, all Chinese languages are tonal ones (like as many as 70% of all world languages): they use pitch — high or low sounds — to convey meaning. As someone who had occasionally struggled with English listening comprehension, I didn’t want to confuse (mother) with (horse) or mix up (fish) and (region).

If you are facing a similar dilemma, language families are an easy way out: find a foreign language (e.g. Spanish) that is close(ish) to one you are fluent in (e.g. French). They often share grammatical structures or related vocabulary. That’s how I settled on Norwegian.

While the Scandinavian languages split from the ancestors of modern German on the family tree a long while ago, they still have similarities enough. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that vits (‘joke’) means Witz in German, no kidding.

I’d wanted to go for Danish first, but that’s where the listening comprehension came in again. Sorry, Danes — I do adore Copenhagen, but (standard) Norwegian is so much easier to understand!

The Passionate Choice

Now that we have covered the practical language students and the lazy ones (like me), there’s still the romantics. No, I’m not talking about learning your spouse’s native tongue — although that’s the most beautiful reason of all. Some people simply excel at acquiring new language skills if they feel true passion for the country it’s spoken in or the history and (pop) culture it’s connected with.

If you can identify with that, stop wondering if it’s “useful” to devote all that time and energy to your latest hobby. Maybe you will never live in that particular country, or never get the chance to use your skills to boost your career. Sometimes, the journey is its own reward.

I once knew a guy — a bright grad student with a psychology degree, but no particular interest in foreign languages — who suddenly decided to teach himself Finnish. Yes, that language whose 15 grammatical cases make German noun inflections look like a piece of cake. Its grammar is the very opposite of the KISS (“Keep It Simple, Stupid!”) rule.

Why would he do this to himself? A Finnish girlfriend? An exciting PhD program at Helsinki University? The actual answer was … Finnish metal bands.

He was such an ardent fan of the metal music scene up north that all the effort seemed completely worth it. For someone whose song collection included titles like “Pitch Black Emotions”, he bore his language-related struggles with cheerful equanimity.

In brief: there’s no “right” or “wrong” reason to learn a new language. Just think about which motivation resonates with you most and use it to make your choice!

Millions of Reasons

How many reasons are there for moving abroad? Perhaps as many as 57,000,000! That astounding eight-digit figure is the estimated number of expatriates in the world. Their specific backgrounds and reasons for making the big move are just as multifaceted as the globe itself.

Thanks to our Expat Insider study, based on over 14,000 respondents from around the world, we have identified a variety of “expat types”: each has their particular reasons for relocating. Some were simply practical and others were profoundly emotional.

Unsurprisingly, the prospect of great employment opportunities motivates a large percentage of expatriates. Other reasons for moving abroad include the desire for a better quality of life, a comfortable salary, promising career options, as well as an international education.

Which Type of Expat Do You Identify With?

The foreign assignee is the “classic” expat — a corporate employee, often in a senior or management position, who was sent abroad by their company. There are also those who go abroad on their own initiative, to study and gain some intercultural experience — and simply stay on after getting their degree. Others are headhunted by a foreign employer for their professional skills, or their entrepreneurial spirit prompts them to open their own business in another country.

Of course, expat life isn’t all about new and exciting career opportunities or a top-notch degree. For one in four expatriates, it’s actually about love or family.

The romantics tend to follow their heart across oceans and borders to build a new life with the person they love. Similarly, traveling spouses choose to relocate for the sake of their partner’s career, while some expats simply long to be closer to other family members, like adult children or aging parents.

Last but not least, it’s an incurable case of wanderlust that drives the adventurous type to leave hearth and home behind. They see moving abroad as a personal challenge, a journey of self-discovery: along the way, they explore other countries and cultures, travel the world, or even settle in their dream destination.

What’s Your Story?

But there’s much more to expat living than abstract types and statistics! To celebrate reaching 1 million likes on Facebook— sadly, we haven’t reached 57 million quite yet — we asked our followers why exactly they packed their suitcase and set out for the unknown. You can hear some of their individual stories in our video, from running Dubai’s very first ice-cream van to meeting the love of their life on vacation in Mexico. A heart-felt thank you to everyone who shared their personal expat story with us!

And what’s yours? Can you identify with their motivations from our video, or would you like to add your unique reason? 1 million and counting…!

(Video credit: InterNations; image credit: iStockphoto)

Cultural Diversity: Business as Usual at InterNations

Cultural Diversity Day — or rather World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, as the UN calls it — takes place annually on 21 May. Its purpose is to bridge the gap between cultures to work towards peace, stability, and development. Overcoming cultural differences and connecting global minds is one of the most important motivators for us as well. In fact, the diversity of our communities is precisely what makes them so great.

This month, we would like to shed some light on the many ways in which our communities around the world celebrate cultural diversity and bring people from all over the world together.

Cinco de Mayo

Although Cinco de Mayo is often mistaken for Mexico’s national holiday, it is not. Instead, it commemorates the Battle of Puebla and the unlikely victory of the Mexican over the French troops. That being said, Cinco de Mayo is still a very popular holiday, which is mostly celebrated far beyond the Mexican borders.

Some of our communities also got together this month to celebrate this holiday InterNations style. On Friday, 5 May, our community in Jakarta met at an authentic Mexican restaurant to enjoy some cool drinks, participate in a lucky draw, and just have fun all around. The highlight of the evening was the live band and the chance to get on stage and perform a song.

Somewhat late to the party, members in Goiania have the chance to celebrate Cinco the Mayo on Friday, 19 May. Aside from great food and cool cervezas, there is the great company of other global minds and the chance to learn a thing or two about Mexican culture.

The Historic Old Market District with its cobblestone streets and little taverns is the destination of our Omaha Community’s next event. On Wednesday, 25 May, they will celebrate Cinco de Mayo, as well as Mexican culture and heritage, at a great local restaurant.

Celebrating Culture at Home and Abroad

Our groups don’t just wait around for Cultural Diversity Day. They always have a reason to celebrate different cultures, traditions, and languages from around the world. In Istanbul, for instance, our French Language & Culture Group is dedicated to everything French. On Friday, 12 May, group members met at a charming bistro for an apéro dinatoire. They chatted in French over a glass of wine and enjoyed the evening together.

The Gateway of Culture Group in Rome met on Saturday, 13 May, to explore the culinary foundations of Italian culture: grapes and olives. There were a lot of smaller events and conferences that took place at the Etruscan National Museum Villa Giulia that day, including a seminar on wine and olive oil, and a tasting banquet that allowed the group members to get to know more about Italian cuisine.

Those looking for a more active approach, should join the Zurich Indomania Group on Sunday, 28 May, for a Bollywood Dance work-out. All group members are invited to celebrate the spirit of Bollywood together, but keep in mind that a basic fitness level is required for this activity.

The Vienna Painting and Drawing Group is going to take a more theoretical approach to culture and cultural diversity. On Thursday, 1 June, the group will make a cultural map to explore their cultural experiences. This creative activity comes with a small wine tasting.

Our Classical Concerts Group in Hong Kong will gather on Friday, 2 June, to enjoy a performance by the Orchestra Philharmonique de Radio France. With classic tunes from Debussy to Ravel, the performance will bring France to Hong Kong.

And now for a little bit of history: the Paris Italian Culture Group will attend the exposition “Ciao Italia!” on Italian immigrants in France and learn about a century of cultural contribution. Afterwards, they will go out for a drink and exchange their own stories of arriving in France as a foreigner.

A Bit Out of the Ordinary

One thing that makes us proud is that all our communities celebrate the cultures that influence them in their own special way. InterNations Munich, our home base, hosted a Latin party on Thursday, 20 April. “La vida es una fiesta” was the motto, as expats and global minds met at a hot new club and danced all night to Latin tunes.

The community in Cincinnati dedicates each month to another holiday, country, or culture. Their event in May focused on the culture and heritage of Japan. Event attendees got together for a relaxed dinner at a sushi restaurant and got to know each other better.

Our community on the Canary Islands is getting ready to celebrate Canarian Day on Saturday, 27 May. The purpose of this holiday is to honor the culture and diversity of the whole archipelago. Members will meet at a traditional restaurant in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to enjoy delicious local food, talk about their life on the islands, and simply enjoy each other’s company.


No matter if you have celebrated the national holiday of your home abroad or simply spent time with your international friends, let us know how you celebrate cultural diversity this May.

Image credits: 1-3) InterNations, 4) Pexels, 5 + 6) InterNations.

Changing the World One Day at a Time

In May, we get the chance to celebrate one of our favorite holidays — the International Day of Cultural Diversity! One could say that this is a holiday based on a philosophy that our wonderful Changemakers Consuls practice every day — global minds and charitable souls, these volunteers bring different cultures, nationalities, and people together for a good cause every month.

From Washington to Beijing, and from Doha to Rome, Changemakers across the planet have posted some truly marvelous activities this month. So, in the spirit of charity and cultural friendship, please don’t hesitate to get involved!

‘V is for Victory of Love and Compassion!’

In Moscow, 14 InterNations members joined Consul Elena Urbanovich at a retirement home in the Tver Region. The pictures from this activity are nothing if not heartwarming! The members got to know the inhabitants of the retirement home, discussed their lives and stories, and also brought some brilliant gifts to celebrate the day and help the people. The activity was not only diverse in terms of age, though, as five different nationalities were represented.


Volunteer Power

The Berlin Changemakers Group hosted an amazingly inventive activity, bringing together members who have always wanted to volunteer and NGOs who need volunteers. Organized by Alejandra Müller, it was a wonderful night: our members did not only get to learn more about the many benefits of volunteering, but also how easy it is to get involved. A whole host of NGOs and charitable organizations attended the event, including Vostel, Berliner Tafel, UNICEF, Visioneers, Pflege Engagement, and Helpling. This was a truly marvelous idea, and we are sure it will prove to be inspiring for our members in Berlin, but also for other Changemakers around the world.


Football for Peace

This month, Mirawati Piliang in Jakarta posted a wonderful activity that captures the very essence of what the International Day of Cultural Diversity is all about — Football for Peace. The activity invites people to take part in an event organized by the Uni Papau, which aims to help the younger generation of Jakarta to stay away from violence and drugs through football. The activity takes place on Friday, 19 May, and runs for two days. Members from three different countries have already signed up. We can’t wait to see their wonderful pictures!

Thanks again to everyone who got involved with the InterNations Changemakers this month. If we make each day a little bit better, then someday there hopefully won’t be any bad ones left!

Next month is World Environnment Day, and we are excited to see what you have planned for this occassion.


(Image credits: InterNations, Pixabay)

Breaking Out of the Expat Bubble: 5 Steps to Connecting with the Local Culture

Any expat knows how tempting it is to stick around with your fellow newcomers, but if you want to fully connect with the local culture, it can be difficult to break out of the so-called “expat bubble”.

Making friends with other expats is perfectly understandable. Arriving in a new place can be daunting, so it is natural to gravitate towards people who are going through a similar adjustment process. But if you have moved abroad for the culture or the language, or to meet people from your current country of residence, you may be looking to expand beyond the expat circle.

Here are a few tips to help you go from newbie to native!

Learn the Language

Maybe the local residents speak your language, or at least a lingua franca such as English, but nothing beats communicating with people in their mother tongue. There are endless benefits to being able to speak the local language, starting with the day-to-day uses.

No price can be placed on understanding the names of products in the supermarket or reading a menu without cracking out a dictionary. Even picking up the basics will help you stand out from the tourists.

If you already speak the language with some degree of fluency, you can still make efforts to understand the local lexicon better. Try listening out for any dialect or accent commonly used in your new home. Even if you cannot speak it yourself, recognizing the accent of your area can help you spot locals. Noticing the linguistic particularities — and peculiarities — of your area will also win you real brownie points with your new neighbors.

As Nelson Mandela so quotably said, “If you speak to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Join In with Local Festivals

A lot of major customs have become fairly international, but every area has its own individual celebrations to brush up on.

While the festivities might be normal for local people, observing these celebrations can be fascinating for recent arrivals. Whether it’s the sinister-looking Austrian Krampuslauf, the dark history behind the UK’s Guy Fawkes Night, or Japan’s hanami (cherry blossom celebrations), these kinds of events are definitely worth checking out.

There is always the risk of looking like a tourist, turning up without the correct traditional outfit, or being the only one silently mouthing along to the songs that everyone else has known since childhood. But don’t worry about that!

On the whole people will be friendly and enthusiastic that you are trying to find out more about their culture. Besides, you can always play the “confused foreigner” card to get a bit of leeway and an explanation of what exactly is going on.

Take Off Your Headphones

On your morning commute, you might want to shield yourself off from the world, drowning out the unfamiliar environment with a few songs from home or a podcast in a language you can actually understand. But it’s worth unplugging your MP3 player once in a while.

Overhearing conversations, or even just the local equivalent to “mind the gap”, will make you feel much more familiar with your new city. Listen out for the announcement of each station. It’s a quick and easy way to perfect your pronunciation of local place names on your way to work.

Entering into a bit of harmless people-watching can also teach you a lot about the culture of your new country or city. The way other passengers talk to each other or the etiquette of giving up your seat can tell you a lot about how people interact.

You never know, you might even end up talking to some of your fellow commuters and enjoying a bit of small talk along the way!

Keep Up to Date with Local News

Your trusty news source from home might still be the best place to stay informed on current affairs, but taking an interest in the local paper or radio station is invaluable. If you want to blend in with the locals, you are better off knowing about the controversy surrounding the ongoing roadworks in town or the increase in daycare fees, rather than being well versed in the ebb and flow of international politics.

Try to follow local politics and read up on the issues affecting your area, too. You will easily find someone to talk to about these topics. If it’s about where they live, it will matter to them, and they will be only too willing to discuss it with an outsider.

Watch the TV Shows Everyone is Talking About

Even if you think it’s rubbish, local television is worth tuning in to. Whether it is a terrible reality TV show or a dodgy weekly talent contest — if people are talking about it, start watching it.

In Germany, the format for compulsory viewing is a crime series called Tatort, with a different city playing host to a murder investigation nearly every Sunday night. If you know the difference between the Tatort teams from Munster and Munich, you will fit right in, even if you would really rather be watching your own trashy TV shows from home.

It is great to bond with your fellow expats, but it is always worth trying to get to know the culture of your new country a little better. Most people are welcoming to newcomers, so just dive in and see what you can learn about your new home!

Katie Costello is a German and politics student at the University of Exeter, currently working for InterNations as an intern in the Editorial Office. She likes speaking German and is enjoying the laid-back Bavarian lifestyle in Munich.

(Image credit: iStockphoto)