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How to make new friends when you don’t master the language

All of us have different ways of seeing the world around us and two of the strongest filters that shape us are language and culture. Today I thought we’d explore the language side of things, as I know this is a challenging one for many people. Especially when it comes to landing in the new place and finding your feet.

I’m fortunate enough to have grown up in Sweden where English is taught from a very you age and we’re also strongly encouraged to learn a third language by age 12 or 13. Partnered with a decent ear for language and melody, it’s made my experiences overseas a little bit easier, but certainly not without its challenges.

You see, language is such a powerful thing and for most of us it takes quite a while to become fluent (learn the jokes, the accents and the nuances). To make new friends in a new place when you don’t quite understand the language can be scary and compromising, even for the most outgoing people.

How then can you approach this, get past the nerves and start making friends?

  1. Take ownership! Regardless why you chose to move – you’re here now. If you’re not confident around the language side you must take action to learn it. Enrol in a local or online language course (I often use the duo lingo app on my phone) or get a local tutor who can help you learn the language faster. The only way to learn a language is to speak it, practise and get out there. You will not learn it by hiding from the locals! 🙂
  2. Have a go! It does not have to be perfect, no one is an expert before they’ve learned something. Have a laugh and allow yourself to get it wrong until you get it right. That’s how children AND adults learn!
  3. You probably speak their language way better than they speak yours! When I first moved to the US at 19 years old, I was so worried that my English was not good enough. I certainly did make a lot of language and grammar mistakes, but I also learned so much during that year, because I did not let my fear of potentially getting it wrong hold me back. And when I needed to comfort myself I kept reminding myself that most Americans I met only spoke one language (and thought that what the Swedish chef said in the muppets is actually Swedish).
  4. It’s always a learning curve. I’ve spoken English my entire adult life, but I still stumble on words or expressions that I don’t know. My best way of coping with this is to always make a note of the word/phrase and look it up straight away or later that day. The only way you’ll learn is by building you library.

Last but not least I’d like to share a story from when I visited a dear friend of mine in Greece this past summer. Her English is completely fluent and my Greek is very, very basic ( I mean it, I can pretty much just say ‘hi’, ‘thank you’ and some rude words) and I had the great privilege of meeting her friends and family during my time in Greece. On this one particular evening we went out for cocktails at a bar up in the mountains, and naturally some of the conversation took place in Greek. And then that moment happened where all the Greeks around me got into a deep conversation in their native tongue and forgot for a moment that I was there. However I was not the least bit upset or offended. I just watched in amazement as one of the guys told this elaborate story where I did not understand any of the words, but his body language said it all. I did not understand everything in that story, but I understood enough to laugh with them. And that’s the thing with language.

You see body language is 55% of all communication, 38% is the tonality we use and only 7% is the actual words we use. Now how cool is that for opening up your opportunities to communicate even more, even though you’re still a bit rusty on the words?

We’ll cover language barriers a little bit in my next webinar coming up next week – Tuesday 15 November at 8pm Melbourne time (AEST), so make sure to register here for free.

PS: If you need a bit of a laugh because the whole language thing feels a bit hard right now, check out these two guys and their take on Australian ways of saying certain things in English!