Tuesday, May 17

Expat Fear: What is keeping you from living abroad? Language barriers

You walk into a restaraunt with confidence. You’ve been practicing your food order in Spanish all morning. At the cash register is the waitress, waiting with pen in hand. You smile and blurt out Quiero una hamburguesa con queso, por favor. It’s done. All your studying has paid off and soon you will be eating a juicy cheeseburger. Instead of taking the money you laid on the counter though, she looks at you with her own grin and asks. Quieres papas fritas? You’re in shock. All you can do is stand and stare back at the waitress. You didn’t practice in case someone asked you questions. What do you do?

This may sound a little silly, but it’s a true story and it happened to me in a Burger King in Buenos Aires. I don’t tell you this to add to your anxiety of being an English speaker who worries about moving to a Spanish speaking country. Quite the opposite actually. You see, it took about 12 seconds for my food emergency to resolve itself with some pointing from the patient waitress to a picture of French fries on the menu. A couple of head nods later and I was in business with tray in hand.

Many expats choose Belize for its English speaking citizens, but I’ve been in many countries around the world where English is not the native language, yet somehow it always works out. Humans have an amazing capacity to communicate buried in our DNA. Sign language, facial expressions, sounds of affirmation, and other valuable tools are at our disposal and work well in a crunch. That being said, much of the world speaks enough English, no matter what country you are in to help you get by. Although this article assumes the reader is an English speaker, we know even a first language German speaker and a Spanish speaker can get by with a few common memorized English, and Spanish phrases. Sure, you probably will not be signing your new house contract in Spanish without being fluent, but for day to day activities and needs you’ll be fine.

English has become the language of diplomacy and is taught to many school children around the world. Although a little behind the curve of Europe, Central America has made some progress, especially in the more touristy areas that many expats are interested in. Businesses, professionals such as doctors and lawyers are almost a sure bet to speak some, if not fluent English. And don’t forget your smart phone can translate any language in a matter of seconds. But even if you find yourself in the tiniest village in the bush, you will find a way to communicate, as have our ancestors have for thousands of years. Most expats have a little adventurer in them, so what does a small language barrier matter anyway. Start practicing your hamburger order now and you’ll survive. And yes, you want fries with that.

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