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.
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!
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?