Tips for Living Abroad

Learn Instrumental Language first
One of the most noble and practical reasons to live in another country is to learn another language. However, the prospect of becoming bilingual can be a daunting one at first—especially if you haven’t studied much of the new language prior to your move. There is so much about language that is inextricable from culture, which adds to the complexity of learning, as well as the frustration. Once you get a dose of local dialect, the textbook format goes right out the window. I can tell you first hand that while formal education can provide you with vocabulary, it falls short in the conversation department when you have to deal with local grammar.

So what should you learn first? That’s the simple part. Learn instrumental language first. In the beginning of my new life here in Japan I was severely handicapped because I didn’t know how to count in Japanese. One rigorous day of study changed all that. Here’s a list of what you should get down ASAP:
            Learn basic language for cultural norms. It goes without saying that before even stepping on the plane to a new life, in a foreign land, you should learn how to say please, toilet, thank you, yes, no, excuse me, help, wait a minute, hello, and goodbye. These words and phrases are the cornerstones of functioning well in any society, regardless of one’s proficiency in the language or culture in question. More important than communication, knowing essential and polite phrases helps people to perceive you as a good person who is worthy of their efforts, time, and even sympathy.
            Learn to count. The importance of learning numbers in a new language cannot be stressed enough. Because you’ll be using the country’s monetary system, telling time, and ordering any number of things, familiarity with number language is key.
            Learn to tell time. Along the same lines of number language, learning to tell time in your new language is a pivotal part of information communication that will always come up in conversation. The good news is that, often, time can be told easily after learning how to count. Usually, telling time only requires an extra suffix or language marker added to the number vocabulary you already know to complete the meaning.
            Learn time ordered language. Words that can help you to understand events within the context of time are essential. Words like before, now, later, after, next, soon, in a minute, are a great way to convey and understand simple time lines when more complicated language can’t be used or understood.
            Learn simple pronouns. Try to understand the basic pronouns used in the language you are trying to learn such as: I, he, she, we, and they.  Knowing these will give you an idea of who the subject of a topic might be, which could lead you to other context clues about greater meaning if your vocabulary is weak. Some languages may have many different references to the self, depending on gender or local culture, so try to learn which pronouns people use most frequently. Also, in daily conversations, pronouns may not be used as a subject if the speaker believes you to understand who is being discussed by context of the situation. However, pronouns will probably be used if the person spoken about isn’t present.
            Learn one-word questions. Understanding basic language like where, who, what, when, why, which, and how, is necessary to decode questions asked of you; this is especially true when the language is very new to you. You may not understand the finer details of a question, but if you know the basic aim of their interrogative sentence, you have a good chance of figuring out what they want to know.
Get a Map.
Understand the new place in which you live. Find a map of your immediate area and start working your way outward beyond it. It also helps to know major cities or locations around where you’re living, as they will mostly likely be topics of conversations, reference points, or even become useful knowledge should you find yourself lost nearby.
Walk Around.
Go outside everyday and walk around. Period. No matter how frustrating or nervous you might be, it helps to visually understand your location—especially if your new language skills aren’t strong. Try to memorize the locations of important facilities like major train stations, airports, post offices, government buildings, and services for foreign travelers. Start with short walks and graduate to longer distances, all the while, making sure to use land marks to track your movements and ensure a safe return.
Make friends ASAP.
Being in a foreign land that has no memory of your previous identity can be extremely difficult. The most potent reflection of ourselves is found in the relationships we keep. Having left home for a new adventure, or a new life, your social identity is knocked down to “anonymous”, and your point of reference becomes a blurry night photo at best.

To remedy the potential shock that will inevitably be felt, it’s important to make efforts for new relationships. There are no real criteria for your initial relationships besides keeping consistency. Say hello often, and if there is a local café, bar, or eatery you like, don’t stop going there. Go there at least once a week, if not more. As the relationships you keep with natives strengthen, they can become helpful guides in your journey in a new land.

Also, use the Internet to search out groups of other foreign travelers who may be living near you. While some people may discourage you from having too many friends of your own culture, having friends native to your culture in a foreign land can be very helpful. Often times you will be able to find travelers from your native country who understand the healthcare, legal, or cultural systems of your new land. This insider information from the perspective of someone native to your culture can be a strong catalyst in helping you navigate the more complex protocols of living abroad.
Keep in Contact with Home. 
Being abroad for lengthy periods of time can be draining for one’s mental health. In addition to language barriers, there are other macro psychological implications with the sudden loss of deeply trenched personal relationships and feelings of belonging. Keeping in touch with family and friends back home by any means is important for keeping a continuity in one’s identity and strongest relationships, and should not be underestimated. While the most obvious means of communicating may be e-mail, Facebook, or instant message, the more intimate the contact, the more effective it will be for your mental health. The usage of webcam conferencing, and sending letters or packages to loved ones back home can secure and solidify those bonds. By gestures that assure them that they have not been forgotten, in turn, you will not be forgotten.

Also, for more practical reasons, it’s important to keep regular communication with family and friends back home that you can report your progress to. In an emergency situation, regular contact with home can greatly aid you with a contingency plan should you find yourself in a difficult situation that may require outside resources or a flight home.
Matthew Rosario

American / Writer / Musician