Many people wonder how important knowledge of the local language is to get a job abroad, and the answer is quite complicated – it depends. 

When you are looking to go abroad to work or to be a digital nomad, most people think about the cost of living, the local employment rates, local salaries, friendliness of local people, etc. One topic that is rarely discussed at the beginning of such a large life change is how will my knowledge or absence of knowledge of the local language affect me long term in any given country? If you speak English you might be thinking, well, everyone speaks English even if it is basic, and to a point, you are correct. Knowledge of the local language is very highly correlated with satisfaction in expat scenarios. You will find that many people, especially in expat circles, speak English very well in any city in the world. Though, this is deceptive. Overall, it is much better to have at least conversational command of the local language, there are actually even some negatives to knowing a language well. 

Opportunities 

The opportunities available to those who have a solid grasp of the local language alongside native English, for example, are vastly superior to those who can’t speak the local language. This can be overcome by having specific expertise in a given industry that locals don’t have. How exactly can knowledge of the local language help aside from helping you get a job as a translator? Well for one, the networking opportunities in any given city will be astronomically larger for those who speak the local language. This opens the door to many companies who might need your skills and industry knowledge but simply wouldn’t know where to find a foreign specialist. Secondly, if you are able to interview in the native language, it will show two things – first, you are in it for the long haul and second, you show real cultural awareness. Many foreign companies are worried about hiring an expat simply because they are much more likely to leave a job, so every opportunity you have to demonstrate the opposite, the better. If you are manager level or higher, it is of utmost importance that you will be able to build relationships with your subordinates and knowledge of the local language will go very far in most countries. Furthermore, there will certainly be many people with whom you will work that don’t speak English. Sometimes, the most important people at any given company are the ones who don’t make decisions, the IT people, the cleaning staff, drivers, etc. Building good relationships with these people usually makes life easier, and they are usually the most gracious when you speak to them in their native language. 

One of the biggest benefits of knowing the local language is that it allows you to communicate with everyone. This is often overlooked as there are so many people in any relatively large city in the world who speak English quite well. These people may seem like they have good intentions by befriending you, but you will quickly find out that they are usually simply looking for language practice. You can’t blame them, it is usually impossible in many countries to have any regular communication with native English speakers, especially for free! That being said, if you can speak conversationally in the local language, you will meet wonderful people who are likely truly interested in speaking with and getting to know you. Some of the best travel experiences are sitting around with local people learning about their culture over a beer. The only way you can do this is to speak the local language.  

Difficulties 

The difficulties of not speaking the local language can quite easily be measured in financial terms. When speaking to those who do not speak the local language, we have found that most of them believe their country is more expensive than in reality. When you cannot make yourself understood in the local language, you will find even the most basic tasks like troubleshooting internet connection issues, returning something to the store, going to the doctor, finding an apartment, etc. Of course, in many countries, you may be able to find an English speaking doctor, but they will cost much more than a regular doctor. The same goes for finding an apartment, as soon as a landlord knows you don’t speak the local language, they will ask you to pay more than market rent for the apartment. Even when you do speak the local language, in many countries you will still be charged the “foreigner” price. The only way around this is to speak the local language. Additionally, depending on the country, it may be difficult to do anything. In Russia for example, everything is written in Cyrillic, so it is almost impossible to get around, let alone find many products or groceries if you can’t even decipher the alphabet. 

We have talked about the financial difficulties that you might face if you don’t know the local language where you are living, but there are social issues as well. Many expats who speak only English will become “English friends” where you are seemingly befriended by everyone, but it is really only to practice English. Many expat circles around the world are filled with young people eager to practice and learn English. Making friends with these people is very easy, but you usually find out when it really matters that they aren’t really your friend. Every expat has gone through this. They find a friend who speaks English and is eager to help them get acclimated, usually even promising to help with the local language, but in the end, that person is usually not there for them in the hardest moments. This is not to fault these people, because in another article we will look at how to gain fluency in the local language and it is essentially the same thing. You must force yourself to talk to anyone and everyone. Speaking with new people quickly becomes less interesting because you do not get practice with a variety of topics. Relationships in a second language are what lead to real fluency. Don’t get discouraged, but just understand that if you don’t speak the local language there will be many barriers to your enjoyment of the country and culture. 

Issues with Fluency

It might seem strange that there could be difficulties if you speak the local language fluently. While this isn’t necessarily a disadvantage, you will notice that many of the highest-earning expats in any country usually speak very little of the local language. It is important to understand that many of these people did not choose to come to the country, they were typically asked to do so. Therefore, it is important not to make comparisons to this section of the expat population. Many of them will even tell you that the local language does not aid in getting a job. Remember, they were not looking for a job on the market locally, their company sent them. On the other hand, usually, those who speak the local language fluently have trouble commanding higher salaries as international experts. This is usually because when you are able to speak the local language, people, especially HR managers, begin to see you as “local” talent. Be careful about falling into this trap and know your worth. Of course, those who speak the local language fluently and have industry expertise should be the highest paid portion of the expat community. It also pays to network with these types of people. The only way to make sure you do not fall victim to this behavior is to know the local market well, what are local salaries for expert professionals? If you need to, use recruitment or headhunting agencies to help you evaluate the local market. Many of them would be eager to work with a foreign professional with expertise. 

Conclusion

At the end of the day, it is very important to know the local language and our personal experience says nothing else. When you are able to communicate with someone in their native language, you are communicating with that person on a different level than if you were to speak to them in English. Additionally, while it may seem that most people speak English in any given international city, the reality of the situation is usually much different. Communicating with a salesperson at the grocery store if you have a problem or sorting out a small legal issue will be either impossible or a nightmare if you are unable to conversationally communicate in the local language. Many studies have shown that expats who are able to communicate in the local language are happier with their life, experience fewer difficulties and find the local people much friendlier. It is important to remember that you will likely be looked at as a local in many instances if your language ability is proficient, and this will usually be to your detriment. If you are aware of these situations, they can usually be avoided, and in no way do they overshadow the positive aspects of knowing the local language. If you were in any doubt, learning the local language must be one of your highest priorities if you want to be a successful long term expat.  

I lived in Russia for 5 years. Over those 5 years, I started a few companies, worked as an English teacher, worked at a large Russian tech company, and worked at an international law firm. I want to share my experience living and working abroad so you can do the same!

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