The Biggest Lie Expats Tell Themselves

the biggest lie expats tell themselves. Image of Valencia with churro stands in front of apartment blocks.

Can you tell what the biggest lie expats tell themselves is? Chances are, If you’re an ex-pat, you more than likely are guilty of this. The road to failure is filled with good intentions seems to be an appropriate saying here.

This thought occurred to me as l was reading a review about a clinic I was about to visit for a checkup. As part of my due diligence, I was reading past reviews of the clinic and was surprised at the low ratings it had.

Reading further though, I started to see that all the low ratings had a common theme. They all were written by expats who were annoyed that the clinic had no English speakers when they arrived, and this led to my original conclusion of the biggest lie.

The biggest lie expats tell themselves:

The biggest lie is “I will learn the native language when l move”. It is very normal to think that before you actually make the move. It is normal to romanticize the notion of learning a new language, be it Spanish, French, Italian, or any of the other languages out there.

You’re sure you will pick it up once you “immerse” yourself in the culture (sometimes the second biggest lie!) in your new home. You plan on tackling it with the same gusto that you had when you decided to move in the first place, after all actually making the move had to be the bravest decision.

Reality Bites:

Fast forward to actually being in a new country and struggling to adjust to normal life there. Expats are survivalists by nature and will do pretty much everything to survive. Everything but learn the language it seems. The realization that learning a new language does not happen through osmosis, or that your brain refuses to pick up, and retain things like it used when you were younger hits you like a ton of bricks.

The biggest lie expats tell themselves. Burrito on a plate and
I’ll have that!

Your survival instincts kick in and you become Marcel Marceau and learn to communicate with hand and body gestures to make yourself understood. In addition to the body communications, you are also familiar with the:

  • Asking if there are English speakers wherever you go.
  • Downloading apps like Google translate as a quick cheat way to answer.
  • Picking your restaurant meals from the pictures or pointing to what someone else is eating.
  • Learning just a few phrases to get by, what l refer to as restaurant lingo, for instance – where is the toilet?
  • Making the effort to seek out places where you know they have people that speak your language, or worse yet, solely eating or shopping, etc. at those places.
  • Making friends solely with people that speak your language.
  • Living in “expat areas” only.

It seems we try so hard to evade actually learning the language, something that might take less effort in comparison. Who isn’t just a bit envious when meeting people who have the ability to learn new languages easily as kids can often do? It makes you wonder what you’re missing having to struggle just to learn a second language when some people can speak four, five, even six languages or more.

The point. A very useful communication tool in the biggest lie world.

I think, for the most part, the saying “necessity is the mother of invention” comes to play here. Some ex-pats or immigrants move to a place and need to work to survive. That drive inspires you to learn, and quickly.

They, therefore, immerse themselves totally in the new culture and start to pick up common everyday phrases. They watch a lot of television, movies, listen to music, and read children’s books to speed up the process. These are common and practical ways to learn a new language.

Expats, on the other hand, for the most part, do not need to work. There is no sense of urgency. After all, their days are spent doing leisure activities, such as lunching, golfing, and just chilling out. Technology has made everything easier for us all.

This ultimately means the desire to learn the language gets pushed to the background as they become assimilated and can get by with their very limited language knowledge. Why bother to learn when you can watch television and movies in the original language?

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Back view of the valencia cathedral.
The Valencia Cathedral back view. Just one of the many beautiful spots in the old center.

One of the things l have talked about in past posts is that you must acclimate to your new surroundings, not that the people should change for you. Back to the bad reviews, it is ridiculous that people demand English-speaking personnel to cater to them because they don’t speak the language (in this case Spanish).

We are in Spain and l don’t think they should be obligated to provide you with English speakers, or Chinese, or French, etc. You should either speak the language or come with a translator. In other words, be prepared.

Yes, I know, in the U.S for instance, you will have translators, and other personnel that can help you in different languages at practically every place, but guess what? You are not there anymore. It shouldn’t come as a surprise.

My Opinion on the biggest lie expats tell themselves:

  • Start learning the language before you move so as to make your transition a bit smoother.
  • Stop demanding that things work the way you want.
  • Stop telling yourself the biggest lie, and actually make the effort.

6 thoughts on “The Biggest Lie Expats Tell Themselves”

  1. In my case, the sad reality is that I am a left-brained person so I learn math and science much faster than a new language. It is as if I am immune to remembering Spanish grammar and vocabulary. I actually know another langauage but I learned it at a very young age.

    • It’s true that the best time to learn a new language is as a child. I learned French in school many many moons ago, but of course, when you don’t use it, you forget. I would love to be able to retain math and science too though. You can still dazzle with that :-). Your two languages are still better than most…hahaha!

  2. I love this article. I studied Spanish in high school and in uni. I never did learn to speak it well. In uni the emphasis was on literature of Spain and Latin American countries. Hence, I read well and write reasonably well in Spanish. That is true of my German and French studies also.

    I lived in Mexico for 10 years following retirement and never learned to carry on a conversation in Spanish. I deal well shopping and day to day interactions with service people. After 10 years back in the States, once again I am in Mexico, but this time in an are where there are many retired ‘gringos’. Hence, I am not learning any more spoken Spanish.

    Frankly, I doubt I have the aptitude to really do such, though I read two Spanish language newspapers online almost daily. Speaking?? Not bloody likely to ever really happen.

    Nevertheless, I get by just fine and love my community and multi-national friends. Oops. Neccito ir de compara para carne, verduras y pollo. {:-))

    • Thanks for reading it. Looking back, I wish l had studied Spanish instead of French in school, but of course, it wasn’t on offer then. It would have done me a world of good. I read much better in Spanish than l speak it. Probably having to concentrate on the intonations and accents etc. It certainly doesn’t help having to remember that v is b etc. :-). it is very difficult, and l think as we age, our brain becomes less sponge-like.

      It’s great that you can carry on day-to-day conversations. I have friends who can’t even be bothered to learn basic phrases. I laugh a lot as l end up translating at the restaurants, and l don’t think my grasp is that good. I am now in a conversational Spanish class and so l hope to improve. I can already tell the difference. Gracias por la comentario :-).

  3. So true!

    As an expat, I found it really difficult to learn German at first. In fact, I cried quite a lot ‘cos I wasn’t getting it, and then wouldn’t you know, I got offered a management position where they didn’t want me to speak German at all!

    Luckily, I was motivated enough to learn it myself, as I found it useful in Eastern Europe!

    Not only that, but I’m often invited to comment on British issues on German TV / radio. That would never have happened if I didn’t speak the language!

    • It’s hard for me to even think about complaining to you as the language you had to learn is many times more complicated than Spanish. I salute you and your determination and l am so proud of your command of the German language.

      Funny that you ended up where they didn’t need for you to speak the language. Funny how things work out…haha! Yeah… l think it’s great that you have become the go-to when it comes to commenting on the royals for instance. Certainly a big perk of speaking German.


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