5 tips on how to overcome language barriers as an expat

5 tips on how to overcome language barriers as an expat

Moving to another country as an expat is a very exciting adventure that will be absolutely transformative, but it does come with its own set of challenges. Namely, one of the major issues expats face is the language barrier. You might have made efforts to learn GermanFrench or Italian before you arrive in Switzerland, but chances are your efforts to communicate might be hampered now and then. While English is widely spoken in Swiss cities, it is still important to try and communicate in the local language. 

Thankfully, with the help of smartphones and technology, help is a lot more accessible in the modern day. Here's how you can continue to communicate successfully, even if the foreign language gets the better of you. 

How to minimise language issues an expat 

Here are a few methods to overcome some language barriers as an expat: 

1. Find a reliable translation service

With the aid of smartphones and apps, the language you see around you in your new home country doesn't have to be confusing. Apps like Google Translate can be used to translate text in real-time. You can even use the camera to translate things like menus, signs and paper documents. 

Keep in mind that certain jargon or slang words - like a lot of Swiss-German phrases - do not always translate well. Apps like DeepL are fantastic for grasping context and idioms within languages and cultures that can help expats adjust to casual conversations a lot better. Rather than letting it pass you by, engaging with the language you see around you - signs, adverts on the train, snatches of overheard conversation - can help you learn. Look up anything you don't understand and soon you'll start adding to your vocabulary! 

2. Use visual methods or body language to get your message across

During any kind of conversation, body language goes a long way. This is especially true if you and your conversation partner don't speak the same language. Body language can convey the message that you are trying to get across, and observing the body language of others can also help you understand what the other person is trying to say.

If you are meeting someone new or if it’s a happy situation, present a pleasant smile or nod to convey acknowledgement. Furthermore, having a visual method such as a picture or video can help convey your message better to the other person, especially in places like restaurants, grocery stores and cafes. 

3. Make friends that speak the native language

Another helpful way to overcome language barriers, and practice learning the new language, is to make friends with some local Swiss people. Once you become comfortable with your new friends, you can ask them about specific phrases, cultural norms, idioms, or popular slang words in their mother tongue.

While hanging out in person is the ideal, it might also be convenient to join a Facebook group or online forum for expats where you can ask other people about common language barrier problems that you run into. If you’ve come to your new country for work or school, it would be ideal to make friends in that setting so they have a better context of the situation.

4. Take notes for future reference

Oftentimes in daily life, a lot of the interactions you have end up being repeated. For example, you will use words like greetings, thank yous, goodbyes, and the names of foods or drinks, regularly - to name a few. When you encounter one of these, make a note of it on your phone or in a notebook with the context of the situation to help you keep it in mind for future occurrences.

You can also Google common phrases and sayings beforehand and store them on your phone or in a notebook to practice them whenever you have time or if the situation calls for it. You can even compile links to videos, TikToks, or Instagram posts that mention common phrases or sayings.

5. Be patient and respectful

Lastly, be patient and respectful. Moving to a new country with an entirely different language and culture is no small feat, and it comes with many challenges. While it can feel overwhelming, understand that it is part of the process and does not make you any less competent. Take note of every situation, but be sure to be patient with yourself and others, especially when interactions can become frustrating.

Remember that each culture has specific norms that may not translate into what you're used to back home. Try to note the behaviours of locals and observe what is considered acceptable and what is not. Before moving to your new country, you can also research the cultural etiquette of your new country so you have some context beforehand.

How to help yourself adapt to language barriers as an expat

Arguably, one of the hardest parts of being an expat are the language barriers in a foreign country. Hopefully, this list has been able to give you a few pointers on what to do to overcome language barriers as an expat.

Eesha Wirk


Eesha Wirk

Eesha studied in the United States, obtaining a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience and Studio Art. She is currently getting her Research Masters in Cognitive Neuropsychology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. In...

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