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Foreign language and living abroad

March 16 2014 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

One of the keys for an enjoyable life in a foreign country is the mastery of the language. Many complain that economic migrants tend to stay within their community, do not interact much with the local population, or do not speak well the language of the country despite living there for years. Many highly educated expatriates behave the same way. They gather together and live a life separated from the rest of the population.


Scientific research is performed in English. All the interactions are with international researchers, either at the institute or remotely via email exchanges and teleconferences. Indeed, knowing the local language is not required to succeed abroad in research. There is not much incentive in learning a foreign language. Mastering it takes time and effort that many of us are not willing to spend. Why do I advocate that everyone should make that effort?


I think that working abroad is a mind-opening experience, not only at work but also outside work. We all do like our home country, where are our partner, family, and friends. Making new local friends (or even a partner) and enjoying the culture of the country are essential parts of the experience. But the main reason for me is the respect to the host country and his population. As foreign researchers, we are paid by the people's taxes. Off-course, our work will benefit the scientific outcome of that country. But in the eyes of the public, an effort to integrate to the country is also well perceived and mastering the language is key to the integration.


I am moving in a few months to Germany. At the moment I am brushing up a few notions of German I still have from my high-school time in France, where the foreign language teaching is probably one of the least efficient in the world. I endeavor to be able to read and understand most of newspaper articles and the news on television by the end of the year 2014. The task ahead sounds daunting and I expect to spend a lot of my free time to reach this goal. Although if I can gather enough courage, I will just try to speak with people in cafes/bars/parks in German. People may answer you back in English but this is exactly the situation where one has to overcome his/her shyness and keep trying and pretend you do not speak English. I should add that I did the same when I arrived in the Netherlands a few years ago and do not regret the effort.

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