How to Move to a Country When You Don't Know the Language

In August 2017, Sarah Siddle put her life in Scotland on hold and set off to study in South Korea, a country where she couldn’t speak or read the language. Here are Sarah’s top tips for moving to a country where you don’t know the language.

Learn the basics

A woman shouting 'Ya Basic' at someone.

It’s extremely satisfying when you can say ‘thank you’ to the shop assistant you see every week at your new local store, even if that is literally the only word you can say! Not only does learning the basics make you feel a little bit less clueless, but it leaves the native speaker impressed and grateful that you bothered learning how to thank them. Manners go a long way – anywhere you go!

Make use of helpful apps

Someone swiping left on their phone which causes the apps to appear to fall off the screen.

In the 21st century, smartphones are our best friends. Whether you’re struggling to understand the price of something in a shop, have become lost wandering the city, or can’t read a menu – handy apps can be lifesavers to break down the language barrier. My most used apps were Currency Converter, Maps.Me and Google Translate.

Live in student accommodation or with flatmates

A group of flatmates from the film 'What We Do in the Shadows', one of the group complains 'You haven't done the dishes in five years!'

A massive reason as to why I coped so well during my time abroad was where I lived. I stayed in student accommodation that was home to 37 foreign students from every corner of the world. I instantly had a huge network of people who were in the same daunting situation as me. Another option is to join Facebook groups for international students studying at your university. You are never alone!

Try to engage with the locals

As amazing as it is to make lots of international friends, it’s also important to make an effort with the native people in your host country. Getting to know these people (in my case: Korean students) can be extremely helpful as they are the ones who know the country and the language the best! It’s likely that you’ll be mixed into classes with people who aren’t exchange students, so talk to them and their knowledge will help you a lot.

Embrace being out of your comfort zone

A man explaining that he travels to go out of his comfort zone.

Being faced with a language barrier can instantly make people feel uncomfortable, however you’ll soon realise that being able to understand everything around you at all times isn’t the be-all and end-all. When I arrived I initially felt totally out of my comfort zone. As time went on, it ended up feeling really empowering to successfully navigate around the city with my lack of language skills. Go into your study abroad experience with a totally open mind.

Don’t let the prospect of being in a country where you can’t speak the language put you off. It simply adds to the experience and presents you with new challenges that you can overcome!

Find out more about international experiences, both home and abroad at our GlobeScotters page