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Managing abroad when you can’t speak the local lingo!

It's a common misconception to believe that, in order to teach English as a foreign language you must actually be able to speak a foreign language. Well, it certainly helps to be able to communicate in the place you're living in, but is it necessary? Meh, not really.

I remember very clearly my first venture to China. My mother had kindly sprung for business class, seeing as I was going away for a year she thought she'd treat me one last time before I left, and I was sitting next to a very kind woman who began talking to me almost as soon as I sat down. She was a Chinese business woman returning from a business trip in London. We talked for about 20 minutes before she asked me if I had learnt any Chinese, when I replied ' no 'she busrt out laughing. She could not believe that I was' crazy' enough to go to China without learning at least a bit of the language. She then attempted to teach me a few words of Chinese with I then completely forgot. 

So, this woman got me thinking, and worrying, that maybe I should've done some self-study prior to jumping on the plane. But as I was soon to find out, I got on just fine! I did pick up some useful tips on communicating to people when you can not speak the language though. 

Here they are:

Practice your pointing!

Although in some cultures it maybe considered rude to point, I can honestly say that for the first 2-3 months I got by just by pointing at things; drinks in a shop, food on a menu and business cards in taxis This leads to. my second tip ...

Take a card from all your favourite places.

I'd constantly find a nice little coffee shop or restaurant which I really liked and foolishly believe that I could easily find my way back to it. Wrong! Finding your way back to something in China is impossible unless you've been there 100 times or you have the address to show someone. These days I take a card from each of my favourite places to show to a taxi driver. Saves me a lot of hassle.

Be prepared to look stupid at times.


Once you've been around for a while you'll probably want to start taking some language classes top get into the swing of things. You'll take some classes, it'll go well and you'll be ready for the real thing . But what you do not know and should be ready for is that, foreigners trying to speak another language comes across as a bit of a joke in some countries and people will probably laugh at you, and it breaks your heart. But don ' t let it stop you, laugh at yourself and people will work with you to help you get what you need. It's part of the learning process. 

Make friends that can help you learn.

In my first year I was quite lucky because I had a friend that was quite advanced in mandarin, and he took control of all the Chinese speaking when necessary, not only that but he encouraged me to do it when he knew I could handle it. For example getting the next round in, (he probably just wanted a free drink in hindsight), he knew I could ask for 2 bottles of beer in Chinese so he pushed me to try, or asking 'how much' when we needed to buy something, he knew I could do this too, so pushed me to do it and then he'd take over again when I'd get confused with the reply. It helped my confidence heaps, and I could pick up on tricks he used and the gestures he made when communicating to help get his point across.

So all of these things will help you get by but my final piece of advice is to be open and go with the flow. Most of the time you probably will not really understand what's being said or what's going on, but just go with it and remember that people in general like to help and are usually kind hearted so do not be too worried. Follow these pieces of advice and you'll be fine!

We hope you enjoyed reading this post. Remember to share with your friends and fellow teachers. Do you have anything to share? If so, get in touch!

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