Discussion Topics

LEARNING THE HOST COUNTRY LANGUAGE and LOCALS’ LEVEL OF ENGLISH

April 25, 2022


In this article, ISC would like to highlight some of your recent thoughts and experiences on the topic of learning the host-country language and the level of English of the locals living there.

Many seasoned international school teachers want to learn the host-country language and put their best effort into taking classes, etc.

However, that is easier said than done. It can be difficult, expensive and often time-consuming to achieve this goal.

Some international schools offer free host country language classes to their newly hired teachers, but this can be optional and sometimes of a low quality.

And because homelife and the workday for international school teachers are often only in English, teachers really need to make learning the host country’s language a priority.

We asked five seasoned international school teachers their thoughts on some or all of the following questions:

• How often do you speak (or need to speak) the local language while going around your city/country?
• Has the level of English of the locals increased over the past 10, 20 years in your city/country?
• Have you taken language classes, for how long and how did they go for you? Did your school provide free host country language classes?
• Have you ever had to pass a host country language test in order to get permanent residence/citizenship, for example? and how was that experience?
• What is the level of your school’s expat staff with regards to speaking/knowing the local language?

Thoughts from an international school teacher who lived in Lebanon.

When I lived in Beirut, Lebanon, I was very keen to study Arabic there, specifically the local dialect (the spoken Arabic of Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan). I had studied the language some prior to arriving and wanted to become more conversational. I worked in a school that had a lot of Lebanese teachers, so I would hear the language every day in school as well as out around the city which helped me to learn. Our school provided some lessons with an Arabic teacher from our school, but this wasn’t ideal because they put all of us together in one class, whether we were beginners or advanced. I ended up taking some classes at a local language school, which was really great. The challenging part was that I had to travel across the city in traffic to get to the language school and then the class was three hours long, 2x per week. Also, all of the people that I was studying with were full-time students of Arabic, so with a full-time job, it was hard for me to keep up with them! In Beirut, most people are trilingual to some extent (English, French, Arabic), so it is possible to get by without studying the language, but of course, it makes the experience of living there much richer if you do. I had a colleague that studied French while she was in Beirut and that also helped her to connect with locals.

Thoughts from an international school teacher on their entire career abroad so far.

I’ve committed to three languages in the past 20 years while living abroad. Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese. [I will be] adding Arabic to the mix when I move to the UAE in August and use my High School/Uni French in my kindergarten teaching (along with English).

Thoughts from an international school teacher currently working in Portugal.

In the school, there is minimal need to speak the language (Portuguese). Since we are an English medium school, almost all staff are fluent or at least functional in English. At times, it is easier to communicate with some of the staff in Portuguese, but that is rare. Since Portugal´ s economy is very heavily based on tourism, English is a required course in public schools. Although many people complain that it is not well done or the standards are not high, my experience has been that a large percentage of younger people in major cities speak English well. I have not seen a huge shift in this over the past 10 years that I have been here.

I took private lessons once per week from a former colleague. Having spoken Spanish for more than ½ my life, there were times when that was helpful. For others, it created much more confusion than help. Some false cognates could be rather embarrassing. Did my school provide free host country language classes? No. there was ongoing discussion of it, but it never panned out.

For citizenship, I was required to prove that I was at an A2 (high beginner-low intermediate) level. Although the design of the test was different from any I´ ve experienced before, it was relatively easy. For the oral portion, it was very much dependent on the level of the other student you were randomly paired with. I was paired with a person who used Portuguese in business every day, and we had a lively and interesting discussion, so it went very well. My partner was paired with someone who lived entirely in a predominantly English-speaking area of the country and had very little experience or skill. As a result, my partner’s score was negatively affected.

Approximately 50% of our staff speak several different languages, and many have picked up a conversational level of Portuguese fairly quickly. Those who don´ t have admittedly not made an effort to do so. One final point I would make is that as immigrants to a country, we have a responsibility to show respect for that country, by at least attempting the language. In Portugal, people are appreciative of the efforts of foreigners to try to learn the language and are very patient with mistakes. An attempt to learn the host country’s language is a sign of respect toward that country, and its people.

Thoughts from an international school teacher on living in a number of countries.

This is an area of high concern for me, and I am rather disappointed in the level of support I have found in the schools I’ve been with. I was on active duty from the mid-70s for 15 years, and in that time, one of the first things I tried to do was learn the language where I was stationed. I was rather successful, as I still speak three of those languages well enough to get by. However, in each international school, I have taught, I have asked if there were host-nation language classes provided for the teachers. Only one, in Manila, had anything. While my current school is in a country where English is one of the national languages, in other countries that wasn’t the case. In one country where the local language was Arabic, the number of people downtown who spoke English was quite limited, making it difficult to do simple things like buying a phone load, groceries, paying for electricity, and even buying gas. While I tried learning the language by myself there, and in Korea, the differences in writing and the lack of cognates to link to my Romance languages left me floundering. This is one area where the schools can easily provide lessons at minimal expense, yet make the expat teachers’ lives much more simple AND help them understand and appreciate the host-nation culture.

Thoughts from an international school teacher currently working in Budapest.

When I was offered a job in Budapest, Hungary, I was excited at the prospect of learning a new language “from the beginning” and even took a few introductory lessons before moving. Once I got to Budapest, many people discouraged me from learning the language saying it was “too hard” and “not useful outside of Hungary – don’t waste your time.” After a bit of time in the country, I decided that I didn’t really love the language, and I thought my time might be better spent pursuing other languages that I had already invested in studying (that I was actually interested in). I didn’t realize at the time that I would stay in Hungary so long and looking back, I now know that it would have been useful to study the local language. English is spoken more and more around Budapest, but it is mostly the younger generation that is learning it in school now (as opposed to in the past when Russian or German was more widely studied). There can be some challenges in not speaking the local language when going to shops or non-touristy places in the city – and definitely outside of Budapest. Luckily the school helps us with everything related to housing, cars, contracts, etc., so that part is not a problem at all!

These statements were submitted anonymously by ISC members. Thanks! If you are also interested in sharing your thoughts and perspective, please contact us here.

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Highlighted Articles

How to Learn French, Swedish, Spanish

July 20, 2019


“How about Italy?” she said.

I was lying on my friend’s couch. It was 2010. Los Angeles. I was 20, visiting from University in Boston. 

That year I had stopped playing competitive tennis. I had a spinal injury. I was depressed. 

“You love food,” she said.

2007. High school. End-of-the-year  evaluations. My Spanish teacher sat me at a desk in the back of the room, away from the other students. She opened a manila folder with my final course grade, and then closed it. 

“You have great tenacity,” she said. 

“But you’ll never learn a foreign language.” 

“It’s just a small application,” she said. “You’ll finish it by the afternoon!”

On the plane to Italy I sat next to a girl my age, knees shaking, scratching her wrist. She was crying.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. 

“My father died on September 11th,” she said.

We held hands. And we took Italian together. 

That summer we practiced Florence. 

Fast forward to 2012. I studied more Italian at the Middlebury Language School. A couple teachers there helped me with my application to be a high school teacher abroad. I moved to Crema, Italy. The town is now known for the Oscar-winning movie “Call Me By Your Name.” Some days I’m jealous. If only the director had spotted me years ago! Seeking male 18-24 American, speaks French and Italian.

I speak French because I moved to Bordeaux. 

Because why not? 

My roommate was a grandmother. I still remember her first email to me:

“Malgré my advanced age it’ll be a pleasure to pick you up from the airport.” What does malgré mean?!

Despite. She was 74. 

She stewed the best fig jam. Little dotlets of confitture and hot yellow butter, glistening against a crisp o’clock baguette. 

My new grandmother got sick. She had to stay in the hospital for several weeks. She couldn’t swallow properly. I should’ve noticed. All the little yogurt spoons in the dishwasher.

I had to leave France when she was still in the hospital. She held my hand. 

“Go, go, adventure!” she said. 

I left for Los Angeles, a Master’s program. When I finished, I thought I was moving to Sweden, a fellowship I was applying for, a project between Portugal, Sweden and the United States. 

I had to learn Portuguese and Swedish, enough so that I could pass the speaking portion of the B1 proficiency exams in both languages. 

I touched every word I could find, working with online teachers, making sure I made that girl on the plane, and my French grandmother proud. Go, go, adventure! 

I passed. 

If I listed to you the languages I now speak, it would sound arrogant. But to recount the sequence of events that make me feel like any language is possible, I turn to the territory of the heart. 

It’s quite random, who opens us. It would be easy to say that my high school teacher’s ignorance was what fueled me to learn many languages. Perhaps a little fuel. It’s a more profound idea to say that the ultimate compassion of friends, teachers, and strangers transform us. It’s not one individual who lets us learn. It’s the fragile edges of connection, from a sofa to a girl on a plane to a malgré grandmother, all who expressed self-love and towards-love simultaneously. Not romantic love, but a spiritual love, surfaced through the language of kindness. 

Kindness is not about the expectation of others. I was a New England kid who expected to stay in Boston my entire life. I was expected to never learn a language. Ignore the preconditions. Start listening to the language of kindness – “how about…?”, a child’s cry, the goodbye wave – as open acts to start a conversation. Language then becomes living – the courage to sit with others, which is a bodily language, a language of our senses, which I’d argue is the easiest way for us to learn a language, to be an expat. 

Resistance to foreign culture isn’t necessary when we’re close to the senses of others. Spoons in a dishwasher aren’t just spoons. It’s a physical memory I can recall. A relationship tied to a breakfast table. Jam is sweeter, adventure more of a quest than an itinerary. More words absorbed than “do you speak French?”

I speak what needs to be held, with hands, with my eyes, with my stomach. That’s real multilingualism. In fountains, gardens, kitchens, courts, alleyways, with the falling leaves, and flowers blooming. That’s real learning.

Go, go, adventure. 

Joshua Kent Bookman is a writer and artist. Like the characters of his book, “close to elsewhere,” he calls several places home, and has worked in France as an agricultural laborer, as a high school teacher in Italy, and tennis instructor in the United States. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1990. 

“close to elsewhere” was released this summer by the Swedish publisher LYS. This is Bookman’s first novel. 

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Highlighted Articles

Is the Expat Bubble Inescapable?

December 11, 2015


Expats in general often talk about getting outside of the bubble.  Sometimes we even complain about the factors of a society that prevent us from doing so.  I have mixed feelings on the concept of escaping the expat bubble. Authentic, non-expatriate experiences are out there.  We just have to go on the other side of the wall to get there.  Living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I could go eat local foods, such as ugali, beans and rice, stewed bananas, or greens cooked in coconut milk, any time I choose.  The thing is, I don’t choose to do so.  Far more often than not, I eat pizza, hamburgers, pasta with tomato sauce, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and barbecued pork.  The foods, and all of the cultural experiences connected to food, are there.  I just don’t go to them.

IMG_20150920_111234The local language, Swahili, is a learnable language, and there are several language schools out there competing for the business of expats.  Over the course of history Swahili has been scribed into both Arabic and English written forms.  Lessons are available in your home, if you want them, and they are not expensive.  The language is all around me on billboards, menus, bumper stickers, and political advertisements.  The language, and all of the cultural experiences connected to understanding it, is there.  I haven’t tried in earnest to learn it.  That’s why, two and a half years into my stay in Tanzania, I can still only say thank you, and hello and goodbye in a variety of ways.  I just haven’t done it.

But here’s the catch.

For one weekend, I exposed myself to a way of living that I did not even know existed. Some friends from work and I visited Maasai homes in the inner Tanzanian countryside.  The homes are literally made of branches and mud. The surrounding villages all draw from one isolated well for their drinking water. The well is hand-dug, open to the elements, has sloped mud sides and requires climbing into and out of with buckets of muddy water on one’s head. There is no electricity out there. Paved roads are few and far between. Petrol is sold in used water bottles. The local market is just an open dusty field full of cattle trucks, people selling their goods off of blankets on the ground, and open fires cooking freshly slaughtered beef and serving it on banana leaves.

I was out of the bubble!  Wasn’t I?  Well, I was still trapped inside my English-speaking bubble, which limited my interactions greatly, so maybe I wasn’t outside of the bubble in any way beyond my geographic location.  Did I really do anything more than drive far away from my neighborhood?

IMG_4851The biggest issue with the bubble is this.  After just two nights in a place that was almost as far from my previous life experiences as I could get, my friends and I got into our 4×4 Toyotas imported from Japan, we left behind several large bottles of water, because we could just buy more at the shop around the corner once we got home, and we drove back to our concrete homes with 8 foot high security walls, internet, running hot water, gas stoves, ovens, beds, mattresses, mosquito nets, electricity, furniture, electrical appliances, air conditioning, a deeply stocked pantry and refrigerator, and a hundred other small comforts I don’t really think about until I look back at homes made of sticks and mud, a lifestyle centered around keeping cattle alive in a dry and dusty landscape, and having to climb down a steep, muddy wall to get thick, muddy water.

I can always just drive home.  That is my bubble, a bubble of privilege based almost solely on being born where I was as who I am.  I won’t ever be able to get away from that.

In response to the question of escaping the expat bubble

Shortly after posing the question, “Is the expat bubble inescapable?” on my own blog, Two Years and Counting . . ., my good friend, Lindsay Rowland, sent me a reply. While working in Barcelona, Lindsay met and became dear friends with a woman from Barcelona named Aurora. Some time after Lindsay moved away, Aurora had to be hospitalized due to sudden and severe medical issues. Lindsay took time off of work and went back to Barcelona to be there for her. It says a lot about the depth of their friendship. I think it says even more about the expat bubble. Here are her thoughts.

lind P7250258I think I would say that curiosity and empathy allow you to poke your head out of the bubble, but love will pop it. Human interaction is the key in both cases, but once you have made a true, real friend in the other culture, that is when the bubble begins to disintegrate. In Spain, I could speak the language reasonably well, ate the food, lived in a similar standard…but I did not really embrace the culture or begin to understand it or separate myself from my own until my friendship with Aurora, and mostly AFTER I left! Through her eyes and her experiences and perspectives and because I love her so much and strive to understand her, my eyes and heart began to be able to take in what it meant to be Spanish. And then through what has happened to her, me visiting the hospital and being embraced by the family (they have even invited me to spend Christmas with them) and all the hospital staff and being daily present in the midst of it—and all this happened because THEN I had a motivation outside of myself, outside of the “shoulds”—(I SHOULD be curious about other cultures, I SHOULD open myself to new experiences, I SHOULD learn the language) to finding the motivation from need because of love—I want to communicate with this person I love so dearly, to understand, to help, to contribute…learning becomes natural and a priority and acceptance is instantaneous because people know your efforts are genuine and you’re committed and invested.

This is not to say I change my identity but my comfort level is definitely compromised—I give up control over, not so much material things like I would in Africa, but rather my control of time if we’re talking about Spanish culture. I’m still the American in the room…but I’m the American who has shed the protective bubble of being with other Americans and eating American food and operating on American time and schedules and efficiency and methodology…and not always liking it, but doing it anyway and not complaining about it or demand that those around me conform to ME…I think that is what it means. But again, I think it’s an easier transition in this example. I don’t see how anyone would logically give up privilege comforts to drink dirty water and live in a mud hut…unless I had become true friends with someone and that person embraced me and there were some reasonable context that I would be visiting and needed…then I think I would be willing to do all: learn the language, live in the hut, etc, for as long as it took…other than drinking the water…amoebic dysentery sounds pretty horrible. But you don’t know what you’ll do until you’re in a situation, right?

Well, there you have it. As I told Lindsay, well said, and well felt. What do you think?

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This article was submitted by a veteran international school teacher and International School Community member, Jonathan Park.

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Surveys

Survey results are in: How important is it to be able to communicate in the local language in your current placement?

July 15, 2012


The survey results are in, and it seems as if most visitors and members of International School Community who voted think that it is basically not so important to be able to communicate in the local language at their current placement.

Of course, knowing the local language is important.  We all know how closely related a language is to the culture that uses it.  On the other hand, how much can native speakers of English “get-away with” not communicating in the local language and only speaking English?  It is getting easier and easier it seems in many locations in the world.

So let’s say you are living in a place where it is very important to be able to communicate in the local language.  Do you have the “gift” of language learning?  Most likely you are thinking that all the other people around you have the gift and you don’t!  It is the argument that people (e.g. international school teachers) like to talk about often and at length: can all people learn 2nd languages as an adult or is it just some people who have the gift and can do it much more “easily”?

It is always a topic of discussion for an expat and their other expat colleagues; your colleagues ability to learn (or not learn) the local language.  You often hear us saying to each other: “wow you are very good at (local language)!” or “You are studying a lot it seems and it is paying off” or “I wish I could speak as good as you.”  These comments or observations may or may not be exactly true, but it is definitely our perception of other expats around us and we are very sensitive to this issue due to our own ability or or lack of ability to communicate in the local language.

You might say it is important in every location to know the local language; it can greatly enhance your experience living in a culture and part of the world that is unknown to you. Even if the need isn’t there to be able to communicate in the local language, most of us want to put forth our best effort to learn it and not just give up so easily.  Taking risks, going outside of your comfort zone, and being willing to make mistakes would be part of a philosophy that a successful 2nd language learner would adopt.  Some countries even provide you with free language classes as a new immigrant there; paid for by the local government.  That would make it even easier for you to take on this challenge to acquire another language.

Have you been in the following situation though?  One day you walk into a store in your current placement.  You start talking in the local language.   The person working at the store just immediately talks back to you in English.  Then the next day you walk into the same store, but different worker.  You ask if they know English.  The person says yes and proceeds to give you a lecture on how you should learn the local language and try and speak it.

Sometimes it seems like you can’t win some days.  Local people in other countries kind of act the same in this regards.  It doesn’t matter where you are, the locals definitely have their opinion about the second language learning abilities of the immigrants living there and how they should be able to use the language.  Many times though your exchange is very positive, sometimes too positive…when the local showers you with compliments about your ability giving you a false sense of your true ability in the language.  It is all a matter of opinion sometimes.  One local might think you are good, another one not so much.

I have even been in some countries (where there is a relatively small population speaking a certain language), and they just tell me “well it is not so useful to learn our language, you might as well just stay with communicating in English as all people here can speak it.” Funny that!

One International School Community member said: “On my current assignment in Copenhagen, I technically do speak the local language, since English is ubiquitous. However, I find it difficult to learn Danish as there is little opportunity to practice given my full time commitment to speaking English at work and taking on-line classes at night. On previous assignments in Japan and Bosnia and Herzegovina, I found not learning the language to be a stumbling block to communication and true understanding. Ultimately, learning the local language helped to further my interests to open up rich conversation about culture as well as to make a connection with others. I’ve noticed this helpful both inside and outside the classroom.”

One final question then is how do you respond to the 2nd language learners of English in your home country (if that is indeed an English-speaking country)?  Surely, now you can relate better to their situation and be more sensitive to their ability level in English (if it is low).

In conclusion, what does the future hold for being able to communicate in the local language in your current placement in the future?  Maybe we will see there being even a lesser need to be able to communicate in the local language, maybe in some locations in the world you will need to know the local language even more.  How important is it to you in your current placement? Does your international school specifically look for teachers who are able to communicate in their local language?  Some international schools do consider it to be important if you are at a school that has a high population of local students whose parents don’t speak English very well.  Please share your comments about your current placement and how you use (or don’t need to use) the local language.

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Surveys

New Survey: How important is it to be able to communicate in the local language in your current placement?

May 19, 2012


A new survey has arrived!

Topic:  How important is it to be able to communicate in the local language in your current placement?

We all dream of becoming fluent in the local language of the place at which we are living, but it is not as easy task…well for most people.  I know international school teachers that have only lived in their city for two years and they are pretty fluent in the local language in my opinion.  We all secretly hate these people.  Then there are teachers who have lived in their city for more than 8 years, and they still don’t really speak the local language fluently enough to have friends that only can speak that language to them.

When that is the case (you are not able to do many things in the local language), it is important to know what the English language abilities of the local people are.  In some cities (for example in Scandinavia) most people speak English at a fairly high level.  In other cities (for example in China) most of the locals aren’t able to speak English at a high level (with many of them not knowing any English).

Each city is different, even within the same country.  In turn, let’s (international school teachers) share with each other what the language abilities of the locals are with each other; what is it really like when living in that city.

On www.internationalschoolcommunity.com we have a topic under the City section that is specifically about sharing information about the language abilities of the locals.  It is called: Languages of the host city and the level of English spoken there.


American School of Barcelona

There have been 100s of comments and information already submitted in this topic on numerous school profile pages on our website.  Log-on today to check out the latest comments related to the language of the host country people in the cities that have international schools that interest you most.  If you currently work at or have worked at an international school, please also log-on and share what you know about the English language abilities of the locals in your host country.

So, how important is it to be able to communicate in the local language in your current placement?  Go to the homepage of International School Community and submit your vote today!  You can check out the latest voting results here.

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