How to Live Alone in a Foreign City: I Don’t Speak the Language!

by Anne Dorko

Almost everything I owned was strapped to my person. I gripped my one-way ticket as I stood at my gate in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The rental car turned in. Draped in three different jackets to beat the checked bag weight restrictions, I triple checked my backpack, carry-on, and guitar. Everything ready, except maybe my nerves.

Thankfully, I had some friends at the beginning of my journey. Chris would be joining me until my layover in Iceland, and my friend Melina would be hosting me when I arrived. But after that? Getting an apartment and making a life? Well, none of my friends lived in my destination city: Cologne, Germany.

And I didn’t speak any German.

You probably found this post because you’re moving to some country by yourself where you don’t speak the language. If you’re like me, you probably don’t have any job guarantees or money to speak of, either. While the details of our stories and circumstances may differ a bit, I’m here to share what I’ve learned to help you transition easier.

I promise, it is not as scary as you think. If you take the time to familiarize yourself with the right things, it becomes much more manageable. You’ll soon find yourself enjoying your new city and feeling much more prepared than before!

Ready to ease your anxiety a bit by getting a game plan? Let’s get started.

A side note: The following advice is specific to moving somewhere totally foreign to you. It compliments my other guide on moving to a new city alone really well!

Begin to Absorb the Culture #

Cologne Germany Culture Carnival

Before tackling the language, or anything else, the best place to start is to learn the culture.

Sure, it’s “cool” to travel somewhere new and exotic. I won’t lie. It’s sensational to be surrounded by architecture you’ve never live around before. Or to go out for a bite and find food you never knew existed.

It’s important to be self aware as you tackle your new surroundings. A typical tourist generally has a me-first kind of attitude. “What can I take from here? How does this serve me?” rather than a more humble, “This isn’t mine. What can I learn from this? How can I serve its purpose?” Make an effort to recognize that what is new and exotic for you, is average and everyday to the citizens here. Also, keep your eyes open and try not to confuse poverty, suffering, and injustice with being exotic.

Remember that you bring your own culture with you, which influences the way you think and behave. What you are used to may not be appropriate here. It’s time to learn to listen, understand, and respect the culture and history.

Now, no culture is perfect. Just because a tradition exists doesn’t mean it is ethical or intrinsically deserves respect. But you’ll never get anywhere without learning about it and appreciating what it means to those who have lived with it all their lives. You can’t come in high and mighty, expecting people to bend to your ideas. When you first arrive, try to practice listening before speaking.

Absorbing the culture is, in my opinion, the most important part of moving somewhere new. Soak in everything there is to be seen, heard, and felt. It’s the fastest way to appreciate your new home, and be accepted by the people you’ll meet.

The great news is that you can get started before you arrive. Here are the top categories to get a feel for the place.

Of course you’ll never know all there is to know, but it doesn’t hurt to learn as much as you can. You’ll thank yourself later. Bonus? Others will be delightfully surprised that you bothered to learn about their homeland.

General History and Politics

Everywhere in the world has some kind of history. Some are more violent than others. For example, Germany is scarred by some pretty terrible events. Most places used to be much larger or smaller than they are now. How did they come to exist the way you know them now?

Good or bad, these events have all led to the culture that exists today.

Here are the essentials you should be familiar with. They’ll keep you from being broadsided in conversation later on, helping you to avoid sounding or acting like a complete idiot.

How long has the country…

  • Had its current government?
  • Existed at its current size?
  • Been called by its current name?
  • Spoken the current language?
  • Used the current currency?

What (and when) was the last…

  • Time this country was involved in a war?
  • Type of government in charge?
  • Currency used in the region?
  • Language spoken?

And just to cover your bases…

  • What is the current capital?
  • Who is the top person in charge? President, Queen, etc.
  • How are laws decided on?
  • How many people live in the country?
  • What was the latest political scandal?
  • What is the currently being protested by the people?
  • What are your rights, as a visitor, in the country?

National Holidays

Holidays mean different things in different countries.

Some holidays are celebrations, others are memorials, and some just… are. Many countries completely shut down on every holiday. Others remain open except on special holidays.

Here are a few logistical reasons to track the holidays:

  1. On many holidays there are great events to take part of!
  2. Useful places like grocery stores may close down on holidays, which can be frustrating if you didn’t know in advance.
  3. Tourist-based locales will raise prices around the holidays. Hotels, rental services, the like. Knowing ahead of time can help you plan better.
  4. Learning about the history of the biggest holidays gives you more cultural insight. You’ll learn what important historical events are recognized (and why). Not to mention, you’ll see how the country has handled tragedies and victories.

Code of Conduct

Every society has a code of conduct, which is not explained to you on arrival.

Unfortunately, being uneducated in these matters can lead to awkward situations. You may thing you’re being polite, but it turns out to be unbelievably rude. Even in Western Europe, which is not all that different from the USA, I find myself breaking these codes by mistake.

It sucks to be in that situation!

It’s best to read up on the expected behavior in day-to-day interactions. This may mean taking off your shoes inside, speaking quieter, or placing payment on the counter rather than hand-to-hand. It’s up to you to do the research. You won’t know otherwise, and often you’ll have to learn by embarrassing yourself. Maybe it’s just me, but I like to avoid that.

Even when you make mistakes, there are a few things that you’ll need to go about this graciously.

  1. Patience, with yourself and others.
  2. Humility, understanding that you may not understand and are likely in the wrong.
  3. An open mind, to watch those around you and do your best to adapt to the new world you’re in.

Going in with this mindset will help you avoid blunders in the first place, and help you recover well when you do.

The Status of Men and Women

Not everywhere treats men and women as equals, no matter how far we’ve come in the fight for equal rights.

Gender equality varies place to place, and at times you might be treated differently because of your gender. But even though you want to say something, judge the situation before doing so.

Understanding the nuances and expected roles will help you to navigate your interactions with others. You’ll have a better idea of when it’s time to speak up to defend yourself, and when it’s time to let something slide for the sake of safety and reputation.

Regardless of what actions you wind up taking, knowing the traditional roles will prevent you from being blind-sided. I recommend erring on the side of safety.

Here’s a list of the ten safest countries for women, as well as a list of the eight most dangerous.

Appropriate Clothing

There are two types of ‘appropriate’ clothing to talk about.

The first is to wear clothes that make sense for the region, climate, and season. Ones that don’t make you look like you’re from outer space compared to the locals (when possible). This helps in a couple ways: You’ll look less like a tourist, which can be important for your safety. It’s also just more comfortable.

Secondly, it’s worth investigating what clothes may be deemed offensive. This is especially true if the area you’re living is deeply religious. Even the graphic t-shirts you find innocuous or funny may be the one weird thing that makes people avoid you.

Speaking of religion…

Primary Religion(s)

This one is simple, and Wikipedia can tell you easily enough.

Knowing what the central religions are will offer you insight on what values the people hold. Do your best to respect them!

If you know nothing about the central religion, I recommend familiarizing yourself with it. Who knows, maybe you’ll end up learning something you didn’t expect?

Cost of Living vs. Average Wages

Search it in Google, or use a site like Numbeo. Look up how much a place typically costs to live in compared to how much money people tend to make.

There’s also a feature that allows you to compare cities. Try it against your hometown.

How does this help? You’ll get an idea of whether people here are strapped for cash while trying to live in an overpriced city. Personally, I like to contrast this with cities I have lived in to see if it’s similar. If I come from a wealthier place, it likely means I have a privileged mindset I’m not even aware of yet. If it’s the other way around, I need to be aware of the social income expectations and be prepared to work around it.

It’s important not to assume you understand the lives of others! This is just one way to give you a look into what most people are used to dealing with.

Technology: Cutting Edge or Falling Behind?

Many people believe a lot of weird things about technology in other countries or cities. Even me. I know I’ve had my expectations shattered or even blown away. For example, South Africa alone has 18 super advanced tech hubs. The only pictures I’d ever seen of Africa were safaris, so I never really thought about it before.

Research the state of technology in the areas you’re going to be. The average speed of wifi, the availability of electronics, whether most people have a washer and dryer at home, how modern buildings are, if you’ll need a plug-in adapter for your chargers, the average state of plumbing – you get the picture.

Did the results meet your expectations? Exceed it?

P.S. It’s a good idea to look up toilet styles and etiquette, too.

Regional Foods

If you’re American, like me, you’ll find that many places are built to accommodate you because you have money. So a lot of times you’ll be able to find watered-down versions of whatever to suit your bland taste buds. (Oh, wait, I’m the one weird about food, sorry…)

Even if you think it will be gross, I recommend doing your due diligence and researching the local cuisine. I not only like to learn about the popular dishes, but find out why they became popular. You’ll often find it has precisely to do with what grows well in the area. This kind of thing is obvious to some, but I grew up in San Diego where everything is available year round.

So, just saying: If you’re like me, take the time and learn about the food. And start gearing up to try things even if you don’t think you’ll like them – you may surprise yourself.

Learn the Basics of the Language #

German Language Books

I read a story once about an Austrian girl who worked near a Japanese community. Her coworker was so emphatic about learning Japanese that he ended up alienating himself from the Japanese customers. He always wanted to practice on them. They didn’t like to talk to him, preferring to work with the girl to avoid his obnoxious behavior.

She sensed this of course, and they seemed to extend her some amount of respect. She didn’t truly understand why. Until one day, she had culturally sensitive conversation while helping a customer. Her tact and respect got her through.

The customer told her, “This is the difference, you see: He tries to speak Japanese. But you, you try to understand the Japanese!”

This heart of understanding is so crucial going in. Don’t get so focused on the language that you miss the point. Or worse, treat people like your own personal tutors or mere experiments.

That said, making an attempt at learning the language is a sign of respect! Of course it will also make your life much easier from a practical point of view. Even if you never become fluent, the day goes by more smoothly when you understand what’s going on.

General Self-Study

Believe it or not, there’s a lot of ways to teach yourself a language. The fastest way to learn is immersion, which you’ll get by default as soon as you move in.

But before you get there, you can start racking up on the super basics. Even just “Hello!,” “Thank you,” “Excuse me,” and “Sorry!” can get you pretty far.

A few of my other favorite basic words to learn are:

  • Food
  • Drink
  • Water
  • Bathroom
  • Train station
  • Airport
  • Pay Here / Cashier
  • Free

…and in general, the numbers 1-20 are usually handy to recognize.

Beyond that, you can pick up a “<Language> for Dummies” book to get you started. I got a 5-in-1 German for Dummies book to study during my summer in the Grand Tetons before I flew out. This helped me prepare for what was to come later on.

Here’s a link on how to break down the grammatical structure of any language. It will jumpstart your learning with a few techniques that reveal the nature of your target language. I didn’t follow this exact format but it inspired my self-study and helped a lot.

Another way to become familiar with the language is to listen to music, the radio, or watch TV shows and movie for practice. Even if you can’t understand it, the audio trains your ears for the sounds of that language. At first it’ll all sound like nothing but as you keep studying, the nuances will begin to emerge.

In the end, my best move was downloading a digital flashcards app. I created my own custom list of common words and drilled them throughout the summer. I had no idea how to use them in context, but this practice gave me a huge head start when I landed. Things already began to click as my brain started connecting the dots!

Here’s a funny related story. Over the summer I had an amazing roommate named Cory. I was in the room studying my list of German words when she walked in.

“Watchya up to?” she asked casually.

“Oh you know, just doing my independent vocabulary study.”

She paused and stared at me for a moment, before saying with the most incredulous tone I’ve ever heard… “You mean your flash cards?”

Yeah. I never lived that one down.

Resources for Self-Study

There are a lot of language-learning resources out there, and many – like Rosetta Stone – are expensive.

There are even more affordable and/or free alternatives to give you a head start. These are my favorite free solutions.

  1. Duolingo – Available online and as a mobile app. A great way to familiarize yourself with the sounds and vocabulary of a new language.
  2. Lang-8 – Practice writing in your target language! Others will help you correct it.
  3. Podcasts – Just search for “<language> podcast”. There are extensive free downloads for most languages.
  4. Google Translate – Yeah, on its own Google Translate doesn’t work 100%. But did you know you can scan a posted sign and have it translate for you in real time? Learning the meaning of words in context will help connect the dots as you go.
  5. Gutenberg Project – Picking your way through a book in your target language is a good way to start. Just pair it with a dictionary, Google Translate, and willpower. Gutenberg offers digital downloads of many books in a variety of languages.

Language Meet Ups, Partners, and Schools

You don’t need to go about this alone. Depending on your resources and availability, you can find people to help you along your way! Finding language partners with mutual interests can make a world of difference.

The most obvious way to learn is by attending language courses, though this can get expensive. But they’re worth investigating to see whether you can take a few weeks’ worth at least.

You can also find groups and language partners to meet with by looking online!

Search out online expat forums for your city, and check whether or CouchSurfing have meet ups to attend. Even when groups aren’t dedicated to language learning, you benefit by connecting to the community.

Learn Specific Dialogue

One last way to start learning the language is by identifying the things you need to do every day.

Think through your daily life in your new city. Write out word-by-word conversations you think might happen, only in English. Combine the powers of Google Translate, dictionaries, language books, and Lang-8 to figure out what those conversations sound like in your target language.

As you work these scripts out, you can expand the conversations by thinking of other ways people may say the same things. Soon enough, you’ll be familiar with all the phrases associated with your usual tasks.

It’s not the fastest way to become fluent, but this gives you a structured way to learn the types of phrases that will be most useful to you in your day-to-day life. For example, I go to coffee shops quite often. It’s a swell idea for me to know how to say “Ich möchte einen Kaffee. Nur ein bisschen Platz für Milch, bitte.”

Or in English: “I’d like a coffee! Only a little room for milk, please.”

Move Around and Find Places to Be #

Riva Del Garda mountains in Italy

You’ll feel most at home by getting to know your city inside and out. There’s nothing quite like being able to hop on the right train or bus without second-guessing yourself. Walking the streets without looking like a map works wonders for your confidence.

But this takes time and repeated visits in and around the city.

Explore the Region

Don’t limit yourself to the city you moved to! Take a few weekends to make short trips in and around the region. Get to know the nearby towns, sights, and places of interest.

You’ll gain a better feel for the geography and learn more about your new home all at the same time. Besides, it’s great to be familiar with the area when talking to someone who actually grew up in the city. They’ll be relieved when they realize that you actually took the time to see what it has to offer. Plus, you’ll earn a bit more respect and trust that way.

The devil is in the details, and these little things open doors to learning about cool new places thanks to conversations with locals eager to share their home with you.

Attend Festivals and Activities

Use all that information you picked up about the holidays to seek out festivals and activities!

There are often community billboards that announce classes, events, fairs, and festivals all over. Search online, check out the city’s website, and see whether there’s an event site dedicated to the city or region.

Join in at these events, talk to a stranger, practice your language skills, and have a good time.

Visit Public Spaces

Last but not least, sometimes it’s nice to simply exist in the city.

Make a list of the public parks, hit up different cafés and bakeries, and just enjoy being there. You may not meet someone new every time, but bring a book, some music, take a walk or enjoy the day when the weather is right to have a picnic.

Wrapping Up

Yeah, okay. Moving to a new city where you don’t speak the language is still freaking you out a little. Nothing quite eases those butterflies like having moved and adjusted already, but hopefully this helps you along your journey.

In review:

How do you move to a new city where you don’t speak the language?

  1. Start by understanding the culture. From politics, regional history, religion, holidays, the code of polite conduct, and beyond.
  2. Next, jump in on learning the language, even if you don’t plan to become fluent. You can mix it up by teaching yourself, attending classes, or meeting up with others who have a similar goal. Find a language partner, if you can!
  3. Finally, get your butt out of the house and explore. Not only does this give you something to do, but you’ll also earn a bit of respect from the locals for knowing your stuff.

So I’m curious, where are you moving to? Have you visited before? What’s the most interesting thing you found out by following the steps in this post? What else are you still freaking out wondering about?

First published June 10, 2016

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