Use Your Good Words (Moving Abroad Pt 7)

(My) Expat Guide to sticking it out (beta v 1.2)

The seventh of 10 ( + 2) bits of advice on how to get the hell out there and not come running straight back.

There are plenty of expats I meet who are abroad are on a two-year company plan. They take pictures, write nice letters to the folks, collect their money and go home. They don’t have the drive to integrate themselves; the plan has always been just for an extended visit. The interested ones learn some language anyway, but most stop at the menu/street sign level. That’s enough for their needs.

Even if you fit into that general category, there’s an important communication skill you also need to master.


7. Learn how to effectively communicate

Wait a minute. Didn’t I already tell you twice (1,2) during this line of advice to learn some local language? Yes. I did. And now I am telling you that’s not all there is to communication.

Learning a language is hard. It takes time and a lot of effort. If you’re like me – and most other Americans – you’ll balk at the idea that you have to become fluent. You’ll try and convince yourself that it’s not necessary. You’ll look for blogs and books that will tell you that you don’t have to. Besides, everyone speaks English or is trying to learn it, right?  What’s wrong with speaking it then?

If you’re in an international working environment English will still likely be one of the strongest shared languages. Your English ability is an advantage. That is, if you – and I mean YOU – can use it right.

Before you start commenting that I’ve just contradicted myself, let me re-stress my opinion on the local language: Even if your main reason for going abroad is love or money, moving abroad means living in and becoming part of another culture. That’s the point. And learning the language is the key to achieving this. In my opinion, if you don’t want to do this, you’ll probably be happier staying at home.

Having said that, there are plenty of people who have lived abroad and not learned to speak a word. My favorite example is a man I met in the consulate once who boasted that he’d lived over 40 years in Germany, married a German, raised kids and grandkids and still couldn’t read a menu. I didn’t understand why that made him proud, nor could I understand how he could stand being so clueless about his surroundings, but that was his choice and he’d obviously made it work.

Now, if you’re raising your hand and saying, “I think that’s me too!”, my advice to you is this:

Simple English is a skill that no Expat should be without.

Yes, almost all Germans speak at least some English. For some jobs it is still an advantage that you are a native speaker, but in most cases it’s only a plus. There are also many versions of English and most of them are not easily understood by non-native speakers. (This is something I am reminded of every time I try can have phone conversations with my colleagues in India or am writing emails to Japan.)

You can get more mileage out of your native language abilities if you can show yourself to be an ‘international’ English speaker.

What does that mean?

Lose or tone down a strong accent – Get rid of the twang, dropped h’s or whatever and channel your inner-newscaster, if you want to reach a broad audience.

Speak clearly and a tick slower than normal (but not super “ya’ll-speak-A-mer-i-can?” slow). Enunciate. – It’s not a race, don’t try and slip your words by them, lay them out in plain view.

Speak in Hemingway sentences – I love complicated run-on sentences. I get this from my lawyer dad who even at home will structure what he says in a way that packs maximum information, back-story, segues, detours and narratives into his sentences before tacking the subject/point/question at the end. This is good in a court room, but bad in the conference call or cocktail party. You will quickly lose your foreign audience on such long windy narrative paths and also bore and/or piss them off. Don’t do this. My Dad made me read The Old Man and the Sea to learn how to break thoughts down into short, concise, clear sentences. Do whatever works for you. A good rule of thumb is if you can’t say it in one breath, you need to say it differently.

Adopt a vocabulary free of bullshit bingo and scrabble words and your worth will rise – I’ve had colleagues here who have never grasped the fact that no one could understand them or their emails. If they had just dropped the colloquial terms, the slang, the baseball terminology (ballpark figure, batting for the same team, etc) and spoken in plain, simple English, they could have spared everyone, including themselves, a tremendous amount of frustration.

Take this advice to heart if you’re going to stick with just your native tongue abroad. English as a language is useless if you can’t communicate well. Knowing the difference between your dialect and the international version can get you a lot further.


2 responses to “Use Your Good Words (Moving Abroad Pt 7)

  1. Thank you. This is brilliant. I say these things all the time, and wish I’d written them. But now I don’t have to.

    I fear, however, that anyone who needs this said to them is a lost cause. Germans compliment my English as easy to understand all the time — especially after they spend an hour or two around the English-only-speakers visiting from the U.S. There are very few of them who can be understood at normal speed on the first pass by my German colleagues. I suppose I’ve spoiled them somewhat, spending significant portions of my day writing and speaking English for a mixture of Romanians and Germans. When someone from Huntsville, AL steps up to the plate, it’s often a whole nother ballgame.

  2. Hey Cliff, my only online access for a few days has been my iPhone, so I’m coming back now to finally say thanks., I appreciate the confirmation.

    It’s funny how many brownie points we earn in the workplace for being the “American they can understand” isn’t it? I think eventually a lot of Americans figure it out if they’re abroad long enough, but I agree with you about the visitors…many of them will never understand.

    Better for us though isn’t it?

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