You’ve officially made your move. Everything is exciting and new: a new size home, a new type of town or city, new public transportation or possibly a cool new car, new school for the kids, new friends, new foods and activities to try and even new smells! Your senses are on high alert as you take in the novelty of this new location. This newness is great, but often wears off after the first three months. As you settle in and reality hits, you’re likely feeling a bit like a stranger in a strange land. But, knowledge is power and I’m here to share my experience navigating those first three months. Here are some of the aspects of my move that wore off for me (or that challenged me, I should say) and tips for how to cope and stay optimistic about your move and the promise it holds.
Try These Transportation Tactics
If you were walking everywhere before, you might start to resent having to drive all the time and this new thing called “traffic” could take some getting used to. Follow my lead, and find some amazing podcasts in your new language. They will not only help tune your ear to the new language, but you’ll be able to participate in conversations about new hot topics (like a current event or new Netflix series). Podcasts are also helpful if you used to take the subway to work and you now have to sit in a car going ten miles an hour. Replace that daily crossword with a podcast, and you’re bitterness eases away (a little).
If you were driving to work before, and now feel suffocated during your new subway commute, we suggest choosing a book to read or a crossword to complete. This makes the time fly by! Pick a novel in your new language so that you can improve your grammar and syntax as well as increase your vocabulary. If you have a private language teacher, make sure to highlight the words from the book that are new for you and bring those words to class to discuss their importance.
Invest in a Private Language Tutor
Find a private language tutor as quickly as possible. Many companies will provide language training, but oftentimes the training is in a group. One-on-one training is more effective. Even though it will cost you money out of pocket, make a commitment to at least two hours of private language lessons per week. The benefits are numerous: you’ll work on your accent, increase vocabulary for work (including phrasal verbs and slang), prepare what you want to say in meetings and plan what you’ll say during your next conference call. You can even review your work email drafts with your tutor before sending them to ensure you sound professional.
Do this for at least one year, which will result in 100 hours. This will cost you roughly between $2,000 and $7,000 for the year (live online or in person) – a reasonable expense when so much of your success in your new country hinges upon your ability to communicate comfortably.
Also, an overlooked fringe benefit of a language tutor is that your teacher can become your guide to your new location, not to mention your closest friend in your new country. You can feel comfortable asking questions about culture, why the neighbors did what they did yesterday, how to organize the recycling, how to ask the plumber to come quickly, why your son’s teacher isn’t responding to your emails right away, and so much more.
If your spouse came with you, invest in a private tutor for him or her, as well. The sooner you feel at home, the better chance you have of staying. Most families leave after 18 months, so upon arrival, make it a top priority to get started with language training, since it is tied to almost every part of life – community, school, work, happy hours, weekends, coworkers, friends, teachers, and more.
A word to spouses: If you accompanied your spouse in the move, you knew that you likely could not continue the same career in the new location. Since this deserves an article all of its own, we will not address that challenge here. But, we want you to know we recognize it as a possible deal breaker that deserves a complete article (more to come in a future post).
Have a Plan B if Private Tutoring Isn’t an Option Right Now
If your budget doesn’t permit for a private language instructor at the moment, you’ll have to purposefully immerse yourself in the community to sharpen your language skills. In fact, this is a good idea regardless if you are receiving one-on-one tutoring. This will take some bravery, but I know you can do it! You’ve already moved across the globe, right? Now I’m just asking you to venture down the street. Check out library activities, the local gym or recreation center, go to the park with the kids, or frequent local bars or festivals after work and on weekends. Look online to see if there are meetup activities in your area for biking, dining, art, or whatever it is you’re interested in. The actual interest or group you pursue is not what’s relevant here, only that you’re visible and take action to be around others with whom you share something in common.
If your language level is still quite low, be honest with those you meet. Try saying, “I just moved here and I can’t speak well yet. I would love to meet with you and your friends and get better at speaking.”
Start Your Child Off on the Right Foot
If you’re a parent, you have the added challenge of ensuring your child is assimilating well (luckily, most children take to a new language quite naturally, especially since they are immersed in it for 8+ hours a day. Don’t you wish you could go to elementary school too??!!). You probably previously greeted every parent at your child’s school, and now you don’t understand everything that the teachers are saying. Of course, you introduce yourself and your children, meet the principal, the new teachers, and get a tour of the school. But it’s still not your first language and you may worry your son might have some behavioral issues like he did back at home, and it could be a challenge to communicate in depth with the new teachers.
Make sure to dive right in! Don’t overthink it. Ask someone how you can volunteer (ask to be a part of PTA – Parent Teacher Association for the USA) and get to know other parents right away, set up playdates, weekend activities and dinners with the adults. The more you speak your new language, the better you will get at speaking it. Some people prefer to seek out others from their same country, but that only isolates them further. Don’t misunderstand me – there’s nothing wrong or shameful about joining the expat community in a new city, but from personal experience I can say that it’s much more rewarding if you try to assimilate with the community around you, instead of trying to create your past in your present.
The Biggest Things Parents Worry About During a Relocation
If you decide to go to a local school, push hard to allow your child into the regular class. Putting your child in a special class for those who are learning the language can result in your child taking two to three times as long to get fluent. Advocate for your child and try to sign up for as many after school and weekend activities with other kids as possible. The child will be fluent within a year, so there really is no need for a private tutor. But if it makes you feel better to have extra support, feel free to work with one a few times a week. What the child primarily needs is hours exposed to the language, so the more play time with friends, the more quickly the child will be put in the regular native-speaker class. So, let the child go play, play, play! They will thank you for it, too!
Take Care with Healthcare as an Expat
Last but not least, get to know your healthcare system. Make a dentist appointment and a general physician appointment as soon as possible, so that you get to know your doctors before you actually need them.
I know there’s a lot being thrown at you at once, but take everyday as a great new adventure. Building the above infrastructure into your life will give you a network to rely on, accelerate your learning curve and reduce culture shock. As long as you set yourself up for success by creating a vibrant community around yourself, filled with local friends and possibly friends from your country as well, you will be able to handle the 2, 3 or 6 year assignment in your new country.