Language Learning as an Expat: 7 Ways to Make the Most of the Language Around You

Claire Handscombe

It’s easy, these days, to live with your feet in one country but your mind in another — to stay connected to your home country almost 24/7. I lived in Spain in 1999; email was in a special computer place over the road, via telnet (anyone remember telnet?), and ridiculously expensive. Half an hour a day was all I had. Facebook hadn’t been invented, and no one had heard of podcasts. I’m grateful, because if those things had existed, I probably would have continued living my life in English, and might not have gained fluency in Spanish.

But if you live in the country whose language you are learning, you have a huge advantage. It would be foolish to waste it. Here are some tips for making the most of your linguistic environment.

Read everything.

Read the back of cereal boxes are you’re munching your Corn Flakes. Read the terms and conditions on your ticket as you wait for the bus. Read the adverts on the metro and at bus stops.

Read books.

It’s so much easier to find books that will work for you when you are in the country where the language is spoken. Some books for learners of French are recommended here, but you can’t do better than spending an afternoon in a bookstore looking for authentic books of the right level for you — thumb through children, young adults and easy reader books to start with. (The Fnac in Brussels has a selection of Easy Readers; ask for books for learners of French.)

Read magazines.

When you are in the country where the language is spoken, you’ll be able to access all kinds of magazines, not only general interest but more specialised too. Are you into photography, or celebrity gossip? Why not have a go at reading those in the target language? You already know the context.


Unplug your iPhone and listen: what are people talking about in the supermarket queue, or on the tram? Can you pick out any words you know, or the general gist? It’s more satisfying than you might think — just try to resist the temptation to squeal “I actually understood that!”.

Watch television.

In the UK, you get one French channel, if you’re lucky. In Wallonia, where I lived for a few years, there are five from France, and two from Belgium. That means it’s much more likely that you’ll be able to find a documentary you’re interested in, a film you love, or a soap opera that you can now feel virtuous about watching because “it’s language study”.

Have the radio on in the background.

Your ear will pick up the patterns and inflections of the language, which can only mean good things for your accent, even if you don’t think you’re actively listening.

Speak to people.

Yes, this is the scariest part, but it’s also the most necessary, and the one which will cause you to progress the fastest. You might find — in Belgium particularly — that people are eager to switch to English; don’t let them. Continue responding in French or Flemish: be stubborn. If that doesn’t work, explain to them (in English if necessary) that you need the practise and would like to speak to them in their local language.

Photo by Hannah Wright on Unsplash

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

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