We just got orders to a foreign country. . . and I don’t know the language!


By Lizann Lightfoot

The day we got orders to live overseas, my husband and I were both excited. We looked forward to new adventures and travel opportunities, great food, and a chance to explore a new culture. But there was also a bit of panic: We were going to spend the next three years living in a foreign country and neither one of us knew the language.

Luckily, the country we had orders to was Spain. Even though neither one of us had ever taken a Spanish class, the language is fairly easy to learn. But what about countries like Germany, Korea, or Japan, where the language sounds a lot more foreign? How do Americans get by at these foreign duty stations?

You don’t have to know a foreign language to move overseas

The good news is that at most overseas duty stations, the base is a little pocket of America. Even though workers at the base offices and commissary might be local nationals, they are required to speak English. If you look for housing off-base, there will be bilingual realtors used to working with military families. Don’t worry if you don’t know the language–you will be able to get your family established even if you have never taken a class.

The more of the language you know, the easier your move will go

It certainly helps to know some of the local language, especially when you are learning your way around town. The more you know, the less intimidating everything will be. More people will be willing to help you if you attempt to say a few words in the local language. When we first arrived in Spain, I had to use Spanish to. . .

  • Speak to our hotel personnel when we were sent to temporary lodging off-base
  • Communicate with our movers as they unpacked and set up our furniture
  • Shop at local stores off-base
  • Talk to waiters at most of the restaurants
  • Read traffic and street signs
  • Ask for directions when we were horribly lost
  • Apply for and enroll my child in the local school

The more you can learn before your move, the easier things will go once you are in a new country. It can be challenging to learn a new language as an adult, but it is so worth the time and investment!

Rosetta Stone

This is one of the fastest and most effective ways to learn a new language. Within a month of using Rosetta Stone, I learned a lot of basic Spanish vocabulary and was able to put together some sentences. The program shows you pictures, displays words, and reads them to you in a native tongue. Because I already knew French, it was easy for me to pick up Spanish, including verb conjugations and some grammar. I could speak it, read it, and understand it, which was so important when we arrived at our new base. The programs are available in a variety of languages. Rosetta Stone allows you to enroll online for $74 for a 3-month subscription. You could also choose to buy the software and learn it at your own pace. Level 1 packages are about $80.

Duolingo or other language apps

There are affordable apps that help you learn a new language by studying a few minutes every day. The Duolingo program is similar to Rosetta Stone but is more focused on vocabulary than grammar. It will gradually build on what you have learned and help you reach more complex levels. Some apps will give you reminders to practice if you forget to log in. If you stick with it, you can learn a lot this way. . . and kids can, too!

Classes on base

Overseas, the base Family Center offers the best deals on language classes. Sometimes, classes are free for military families. They may have monthly cooking demonstrations or weekly grammar lessons. You can also pay for private or group lessons with a local teacher who will meet you on base. Expect to pay at least $10 per hour of instruction for private classes.

Join a conversation group

A conversation group is a fun and less formal way to join a group language class. There are groups available at most duty stations. It is usually more affordable than private tutors and is a great way to immerse yourself in the language and learn useful sentences. Ask to be paired with a partner through programs from the Family Center, or find a group online using websites like MeetUp.com or ConversationExchange.com.

Teach yourself

If you work at it, you can learn a lot by looking up words in a dictionary, reading both sides of a dual-language menu, studying maps, and asking shopkeepers and friends for new words. You can use the base library to check out books or audio lessons for free. I used to listen to language lessons through my headphones whenever I went for a run or a bike ride. The more you expose yourself to the new language, try saying sentences, and practice new vocabulary, the easier it will be to interact with locals.

Lizann Lightfoot is an associate editor at Military One Click and a Marine Corps spouse. She can be reached at lizann@militaryoneclick.com.

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