I first moved to another country at the age of 21 – fresh out of university, I decided to go off for a season of partying in the ski fields. I had already travelled a fair bit, however I was a bit nervous about the big move, so I picked Canada as it was a place I had been before and I vaguely knew a handful of people there.
My snow season morphed into a full year, and then into 3 years of travelling!
Boosted by my ‘vast’ experience, and full of self-confidence, I decided the next country I lived in would be Chile. This was a hugely scarier proposition.
I had never been to anywhere in South America before (although I had travelled through a lot of Central America).
I had never been to Chile.
I didn’t know anyone in the entire continent.
I didn’t speak a lot of Spanish (and quickly discovered upon arrival that Chilean Spanish is not at all like the Spanish I’d learned in a classroom, and that you couldn’t assume that Chileans would understand English).
I moved to Chile to attend an interview for a position as an English teacher – a job I had zero experience in, and only 120 hours of online training!
Nonetheless, I bought a one way ticket and didn’t have enough cash in my bank account to last more than a couple of weeks without work.
In retrospect, I have to wonder what on earth I was thinking. Ah, the over confidence of youth. Fortunately I didn’t fall flat on my face as you might be expecting. It turned out brilliantly due, I’m sure, to more than a little luck.
This story probably hasn’t inspired you to follow in my footsteps. But let me try to convince you. Here are some reasons I think everyone would benefit from living for a time in a country that doesn’t speak your language:
1. Meet amazing people
When you really put yourself out there and feel completely isolated, that’s when you’re open to forming the strongest bonds of friendship. When you live in a country where you don’t speak the language, you may find yourself migrating towards anyone who you share a native language with. For me, living in Chile, I didn’t meet any other Australians. But I gathered a great group of friends from South Africa, the UK, the US, Canada and Singapore.
A lot of the time forming these ‘expat’ groups can be viewed negatively. And yeah, maybe it is if you hang out exclusively with people who are from your home country … but hey, who cares as long as you are meeting great people and forming lifelong friendships!
2. Learn how to cope and go with the flow
Putting yourself out there teaches you about yourself and how you cope with stressful situations.
I’m really shy and would normally never approach a stranger to ask for help. But when you’re totally stuck you have to just force yourself to reach out to whoever is there, and that was a real learning curve for me.
Living in several countries I’ve had to work my way through unbelievable bureaucracy, which has made me appreciate certain home comforts. It has also opened my eyes to the ways we are protected from our own stupidity back home. It can be hard to understand foreign systems, but when you finally figure it out you feel so proud of yourself.
3. Learn another language
Australia is an island (duh) and, while there are many many languages spoken in different pockets of communities, for the most part if you speak English you will never be exposed to other languages. I don’t know if my experience is unique as I changed schools quite a few times, but I learned a different language almost every year at school. As a result, I can count to ten and say hello in a wide array of languages … but that’s about it.
I started trying to teach myself Spanish in my late teens, and continued with it during university, and I hoped that by living in Chile I would magically absorb information and come home speaking like a native.
Sadly, it didn’t work like that for me. Learning a language – even if you are surrounded by it – takes hard work, dedication and confidence! You have to really want to learn because – fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective – smiling goes a long way, as do hand gestures and a laugh. At a pinch, you can also pull out the old dictionary or google translate.
I would – and still do – feel like a right numpty trying to string together words and hoping they made sense to the other person and I pronounced everything right. In retrospect I know I probably had it right, but somehow saying it out loud in front of someone made me less sure of myself.
This probably harps back to my shyness, but it’s also a common feeling among language students. My students provided me with hours of entertainment with pearlers like ‘please fill up the skank with regular’, ‘every night I clean the chicken’, and ‘a big shower fell on me!’ but I had my fair share of mistakes to share with them to make them feel better, like: ‘me gusta comer camiones’ (I like to eat trucks), ‘un pajaro porfa’ (one parrot please). You just have to be able to laugh at yourself and be willing to give it a go.
4. Have authentic experiences
There are so many different ways to travel – city breaks and quick trips are great to hit the big highlights and see those famous sights that everyone talks about. And let’s be real – they’re well known for a reason. They are the best of the best. Once you’ve been there you’ll forever have a bond with every other person who has been there – a shared experience and stories to tell.
However, there are lots of other ‘hidden gems’ out there that not so many people know about, and they are awesome too. And the best way to learn about them is from locals. Forming friendships with people in your new country will allow you to have all sorts of more ‘authentic’ experiences (I don’t like that word, but I can’t think of anything better …) You will also learn lots of interesting facts about their history and culture that make them different to you. Like in Chile, I used to see everyone drinking Starbucks through a straw. I wondered for a long time what that was about, until one day I learned about the history of yerba mate in South America – which is drunk through a straw out of a gourd.
This is the clincher for me, the one that makes me keep going to new places. Living in another country means you can immerse yourself in the culture, take your time, learn the local ways. The thrill of being asked for directions from a tourist and actually being able to help them out – nothing beats that! It’s like you suddenly realise that this place that was once a foreign country to you is now your home. You belong. It’s so cool.
Having said all of that, I know this might be completely off the cards for many people – life, work, family responsibilities etc can all mean that throwing in everything to move to the other side of the world just can’t happen for you.
But don’t despair! All is not lost. Travelling doesn’t have to be an ‘all or nothing’ experience. Most of these benefits you can pick up in other ways through shorter travels, or an exchange to a country that does speak the same language as you. Even just moving to a new town in your own country can push you out of your comfort zone and open up a whole range of opportunities for personal growth. It’s all about your perspective and the attitude you take into each new experience. Keep your eyes open!