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  >  Travel   >  Expat life & Moving Abroad   >  What’s it really like to move to a country where you don’t speak the language?

These are the questions I’ve heard again, and again, and again since coming to Germany. Do you speak German? How will you manage? Can you get a job if you don’t speak German? Isn’t it lonely? I’m not going to sugar-coat it for you guys, you know I’m always honest about my experiences, so this post will be my own honest experiences of moving to another country without speaking the language. I’m talking about the struggles, the successes, the benefits and how you overcome the worst times. In my case, I’ve moved from the UK to Hamburg, Germany, after several years of travelling the world solo, so I understand that my experiences may be a bit different due to my travels, but I think in essence we can all relate to the struggles and the loneliness you might face in moving abroad.

Why did you move to a country where you don’t speak the language?

I moved to Hamburg because I decided it would be a good base for a year of European travels and saving money. I didn’t want to be based in the UK and I loved Germany already, plus I loved the challenge of living somewhere entirely new. I know others who have moved to Germany for work, for a change of scenery, to study or even just for the challenge. And that was part of the inspiration behind my decision to move, but also because I love a challenge, I love being inspired by the world around me and by new locations. It’s a way of bringing travel into a much more stable life and that’s something I love, that despite settling in one place for a while, I still get the opportunity of new experiences and a new way of living. Not speaking the language should never be a reason not to take on a new job, relationship or life, it is merely a blip on the horizon, another challenge to face and conquer.

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How does it feel to not speak the language?

If anything, for native English speakers, it is a completely unique experience to be surrounded by another language and people who don’t understand you. It’s truly humbling to feel so vulnerable and to understand what people from communities around the world must go through every day. It can feel isolating and lonely at times – I miss the banter with random strangers in the street or in the supermarket, or on nights out. It can be frustrating when you’re with a group of Germans and they all slip back into speaking German very fast so you don’t understand a word of what is being said.

I’m in awe of all the backpacking friends I have met who have felt the way I do now, times a million, when they touched down Australia and realised how hard it would be not knowing English. The ones who have learnt English within weeks after being so dedicated to joining in. I’ll be honest and say, I have had some of my loneliest moments since I moved here, and I have found it very hard at times, but it has also been so worthwhile to stick with it and I’m so proud, and so happy, that I have. You see, it can be lonely, but the loneliness is also inspiring, it is pushing me to learn as much as I can, it makes me want to learn for all the kind, thoughtful German friends I have made, the ones who try so hard to include me.

Can you survive without German?

Yes. You can, but that’s just what it will be, survival. There’s a difference between just existing in a place and letting it fill your soul and every fibre of your being. I don’t want to force every German to speak English with me because I’m too lazy to learn, I just don’t have that sense of entitlement. Learning German and being able to chat to our friends and join in German conversation, to incorporate the language into my work and every part of my life – just like the food, the customs, the humour and the lifestyle – it’s all part of the experience of living in Germany. Because that’s what I signed up for, not just living an English life in Germany. Note: You could easily live in Berlin without ever learning German, as I have friends who have done, but in Hamburg it is a much more German city, so this very much depends on location of where you are moving to.

Can you get a job without speaking the language?

YES. Don’t worry, you will always be able to get a job anywhere, you just have to be smart. If, like me, you are a native English speaker, you can find lots of jobs aimed just at English-speakers, from teaching and tour guide work, to customer service and even marketing roles – from a quick look online these are just a few examples of what I have found. There are always options, even things like self-employed work such as an au pair job or tutoring, or you can find work online and become a digital nomad by offering services such as social media, writing, graphic design etc. I know people who have picked up jobs working in English/Irish bars without speaking more than a few words in German. The trick is look around, talk to everyone, use the Facebook groups for the area, anything for the city/expats/new in town etc. But very obviously, the more of the language you learn, the more you widen your options and the more freedom you have. I’ll be posting more about all my top tips for job hunting in Germany, so watch out for that post!

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NOTE: Since writing this post originally, I have picked up a job – the first one I was interviewed for after less than a month of job hunting, a job that requires no German and is within my industry as a content manager! It definitely IS POSSIBLE!

What struggles will you face?

There will be struggles and there will be times when you feel like giving up and going home, but I feel that the more prepared you are for dealing with these, the more likely you are to stick it out and make it work. Big problems include being lonely or feeling isolated. It has been hard to do some basic things like food shopping/public transport due to me not knowing the language, but this was more in the first few weeks, now a month+ in, I’m finding these things easy after adjusting to reading the language and figuring it out, plus I’m a lot more confident here.

Meeting people can be a bit tricky depending on where you live/work, but while it’s lovely to have a group of expat mates who might be from home, it’s also important to pick up some German friends as well. I’ll be writing a big post all about the best ways to meet people when you move to a new city so watch out for that one! Finally, paperwork is a total pain in the ass when you arrive here, Germans love their paperwork and there’s plenty to fill out to register and for jobs/taxes etc – make sure you check everything you are unsure with, ask the appropriate offices, ask for a translator, ask a friend, always just ASK if you are unsure, it’s better than cocking it up!

What benefits are there?

Moving abroad to a country where you don’t speak the language will be one of the most stressful times of your life, it will be hard and lonely, but it could also be the best thing you ever did. One thing that is important to me, is chasing what makes me happy, so that’s what led me to follow travel and adventure to Hamburg. If you do the same, chase love, your career and passions, adventure or just a fresh start, you could easily end up the happiest you have ever been. It will open your mind to a whole new way of living – Germans live very differently to the English, their lifestyle and attitude is different. I’ve made some great friends already, friends from Hamburg, across Germany and all over the world just in this one city, I’ve found friendship, support and amazing groups who are there no matter what you need. Coming to a new place without any real support network means I’ve had to create a new one and forge links in ways I wouldn’t have before, it’s opened me up to new friendships and new people.

You will fall in love, not necessarily with a man or a woman, but with a city. Because setting up in a whole new country, in a city far from home, making new friends and finding a new job, it takes work. Hard work. That takes passion, dedication and determination and by putting your heart and soul into the move, you will find a new city that welcomes you in with open arms. It’s still hard and I’m still learning, still adapting, but every single day I find new reasons why I love this city and that tells me I’m in the right place and doing exactly the right thing.

So, should I do it?

I can’t tell you whether moving to a new country is the right decision for you or not. It has been harder and better than I ever could have imagined, I work at it every single day and I’ve got a long way to go, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

If you’re thinking about taking the plunge, why not leave a comment below and tell me all about your plans. Or, have you already moved to another country – why not share your experiences and tips? 

Comments:

  • July 23, 2018

    I nodded along to every bit of this! I’ve been living in Luxembourg and Belgium for the last 2 years. My French is terrible and I’m always so in awe of my friends here, ALL of whom speak at least 2 languages. The British education doesn’t focus on language education enough. What I learned at school only gets me by on holiday 🙁

    Tsareena

    https://mancgirlmissing.com

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  • July 26, 2018

    Sounds like you are really enjoying Hamburg! We have yet to go there. Most of the places in Europe we have been to, particularly the larger cities, have had plenty of English speaking locals able to help us when needed if hand gestures weren’t enough.

    Moving there would be a totally different experience, and the closest we’ve come to it has been when we were in Spain for a few months hiking the Camino. Even with all the English speaking pilgrims around, it was easy to feel isolated from the locals in the towns we were passing through due to the language barrier. Sure, we knew a few small phrases (and I’m sure we were hard to understand), but being truly bilingual would have allowed us to connect on a more meaningful level. I look forward to reading about how you adjust to living there as time passes.

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  • thefrenchiestblog

    July 26, 2018

    Such a great post ! Thank you for sharing ! I studied abroad in Scotland and as a french I thought it was challenging but it was the best experience of my all life !

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  • August 9, 2018

    Hey Lucy! Knowing the local language certainly helps, and I know how frustrating it can be sometimes if you don’t. Good luck with the move to Germany!

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  • August 27, 2018

    It’s so funny how indeed when you’re in Berlin, you don’t even need to know german at all… but in other cities it gets so much more complicated. I’ve been through similar a situation where I was spending some times in a smaller german city and it can be quite complicated to meet people (not impossible). It’s when everybody switch back to speaking german that you realize how hard it is to really fit in. So I will strongly suggest to learn the language, there’s always going to be a moment when you face someone not speaking english.
    But on the other hand you can totally move to a country even if you don’t speak the language already. It just takes a little more effort.

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  • David.

    September 18, 2018

    Hi Lucy, Loved reading this post. Melanie is fluent in French/Creole with Mauritian parents. Oddly after 19 yrs together my French isn’t that good regret not focusing more on it. B4 we go on holiday (Italy, Portugal, Holland, France, Spain from 2010-2018) I always learn 10 words or basic phrases. Locals really appreciate it when they can see you have taken time to do so. Cab drivers, hotel staff etc. Not a global traveler at all but managed 13 countries in my years away from NZ which will always be home. Mainly holiday in Europe. The boys age 9/10 love Eurocamp as do us parents. Another cruise in April with MSC 8 nights this one. Around the Mediterranean. Stops in Italy, Spain, France along the way. Never thought I would go cruising but it’s actually wonderful. Happy travels, enjoy Berlin! David (from Downham) ps June I am solo 3 weeks to NZ to see parents/family was last there in 2009. M&D were here 2012. I don’t get home much.

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  • David

    October 18, 2018

    Hi Lucy, loved reading your reply, thank you. Just paid the NZ airfare for June next year Stansted-Dubai-Auckland-Napier it’s one epic trek but 3 weeks on kiwi shores I can’t wait, so excited! Fly Emirates. David.

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  • October 20, 2018

    Viel Glück, Lucy!

    You very much described many things I have gone through.

    I am from Hungary (now take THAT for a language! It doesn’t resembles to any other language spoken anywhere in the world) and in the past 20 years, I lived/slow traveled in 7 countries in Europe. Out of those, it was 4 countries with completely new languages for me that I had to learn on the spot.

    Also, learning the first language of a linguistic family will help you to manage your way in other countries of the same group: for example, after English + German, it was rather easy for me to figure out Swedish. Then, with Swedish added to my Germanic repertoire, I can understand Norwegian plus a bit of written Dutch and Danish, so I won’t get lost in those places, either.

    Now I have jumped into Slavic territories: Czech, Slovak, Russian – which was obligatory for us in school and now comes very handy.

    Also, my high school French helped me to be able to communicate in Italian when I was there for 1 month, where that was my only option with the locals in two small villages.

    Languages are a great resource of fun for me: at 50, I am like a little child when she starts speaking: excited by the new words and concepts.

    You too, have an awesome time with them and with all your Germany experience (and whatever may come later)!

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  • February 14, 2019

    Really enjoyed this read!!

    “I love a challenge, I love being inspired by the world around me and by new locations” – this tocuhed me. Life is about taking risks and learning from them and it’s amazing to see you face them head on.

    Last year i spent a year in Japan. Japan is so different from anywehre i have ever been. I was scared i would be alone, but i couldn’t have been more wrong. I loved every single second of it, despite nearly 75% of the population not knowing English.

    You are an inspiration to those who want to take that leap but have a fear deep inside them. I hope people find this article because your work should inspire many 🙂

    Thank you,

    George

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