Foreign Language Learning: How To Live In A Country When You’re Not Fluent

A Chinese dictionary to help you learn a foreign language.

People who are choosing to study abroad in a new country often question how it’s possible to live in a city when you don’t know the language.

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It’s not uncommon for people to move to a country in hopes of learning a foreign language, but we have to remember that it takes awhile to fully become fluent. That’s why we’re giving you 6 tips on how to go abroad and feel both comfortable and safe in a country where you don’t speak the language.

Take the initiative, and learn the basics

A woman holding a Chinese dictionary trying to learn a foreign language

You’ve taken the initiative because you’ve decided you want to study abroad. Whether it’s because you know learning another language will benefit your work, your professional development or your mind, you’ve taken that first step.


Now it’s time to learn the basics. Yes, you’re going to be studying in a classroom soon, but why not get a head start. Learning the basics before you place your feet down on the tarmac of your new home will give you some ease.

We suggest that you learn:

Do you speak English?

Hello and goodbye

Please, thank you and I’m sorry

Numbers 1-10

How much is this?

My name is ... and I’m from ...

Where is the restroom?

I do not understand

Learning these few key phrases will help on your flight and navigating your way to your new school. Plus you’ll start off the class with a tiny bit of knowledge, which will most likely help you later on.

Watch for body language and tone

a class full of students paying attention to each other's body language.

When you’re not fluent in the foreign language, learn body language. Body language provides an amazing amount of information on what other people are thinking… if you know what to look out for.

UCLA research shows that only 7% of communication is based on the actual words spoken. For the rest, 38% comes from tone of voice and 55% comes from body language.

Speaking of tone, Mandarin, the most spoken language in the world, is a tonal language. There are 5 tones that are used and once you learn those tones, you will be well on your way to understanding and speaking Mandarin.

Until then, here are some basic body language tips:

Crossed arms and legs signal resistance

Real smiles crinkle the eyes

Copying someone else's body language is a good thing

Posture tells a story

Raised eyebrows signal discomfort

A clenched jaw signals stress

While you can’t read a person’s exact thoughts, you can learn a lot from their body language. In addition to watching someone else’s body language, pay attention to yours as well. While you’re living in a new country, you want to be open and welcoming. This will signal that you’d willing to speak to new people and learn from them.

Befriend locals

A clasroom full of students that became local friends because of learning Mandarin

Becoming friends with the city’s locals is a great way to learn how to communicate in the local language. By doing so, you will make friends and you will have a real sense of how the city works. Locals know where to eat, what non-touristy attractions to visit and the city’s slang.

You will reap so many rewards when you make friends from the city you’re studying in. This includes finding the best food around your school. Trust us… you won’t regret making local friends.

Ask professors or locals for tutoring recommendations

A student is sitting with a tutor learning the Mandarin language

Outside of your classes, tutoring could be a good idea for you. Additionally, tutoring will allow you to gain additional skills and language tools that you can use inside and outside of school.

Not only will tutoring be a fun, non-stress activity for your brain, but it will be a worthwhile and rewarding experience. There are small class tutoring options as well as one-on-one options if your mind isn’t able to cope with a bigger class setting.

Be sure to ask your professors in your language school about tutoring. They will be able to recommend the right person to help with your language skills that need a little extra attention.

Download language apps, carry a dictionary with you

A phone with a learn Chinese language app up on the screen.

While we don’t recommend learning a language solely using an app, these are helpful when traveling.

Once you’re on the ground, getting around can be a challenge if you don’t know the language. Having an app that includes translation options, as well as a language to language dictionary will allow your travels to go a lot smoother.

Remember, not only do you not speak the language, but you probably will have to make sense of a map, signs and traffic signals. All of those combined can cause quite the headache.

Having an app like iTranslate, or a traditional dictionary will allow you to communicate more effectively and understand the hustle and bustle around you.

Become open

The most important thing to take into consideration when you live in a country that you’re not fluent with is to be open.

You’re the student again and you’re going to be confused for awhile. Choosing to live in a country where you don’t speak the language is truly an admirable challenge.

It may seem daunting but if you’re willing to become open minded and flexible, it will work out in the end.

If you put these six tips into place, your travel experience will become more of a positive and less stressful one. Your efforts will only make you stronger. Not only will you develop language skills you never had before, but you will also work on your self-confidence, body language, cross-cultural communication and problem-solving skills.

Keats School in Kunming, China helps students with travel, airport pickup and visas to ease the stress of not knowing Mandarin, yet. We can help you plan your trip abroad and help you decide on the right study option for you.

Contact Keats School today to begin your journey abroad to study and learn Mandarin.

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