Do You Need to Learn a Foreign Language to Stay in a Foreign Country?

Living Abroad: Learn the Language?

On the blog today we have a post from Billy who hails from GoBillyKorean, a website that helps you learn Korean through helpful, professional videos. Besides his fluent Korean, Billy has a good command of Japanese and he has studied French, Mandarin, and Cantonese in the past. I hope you’ll enjoy the wonderful post that he’s shared with us today; it certainly contains a lot of invaluable advice.

Maybe you’re currently living in Korea. Or maybe you’re making plans to travel to Korea, Japan, China, Thailand, Europe, or anywhere a language other than English is spoken.

Of course, in these situations you’ll ask yourself, “Do I really need to learn the local language?” After all, learning a foreign language takes time, effort, motivation, and dedication – it’s not an easy gig.

Having learned Korean myself while living in Korea, as well as Japanese through self-study, I’ve been asked this question before often. Because of the value that I find in speaking the language of where I travel, I always reply “yes,” but I think there’s actually a bit more to it than this.

After all, there are plenty of people living in foreign countries right now who can’t speak the language well enough to carry on a conversation, but who are still alive and well. You might be living in a foreign country right now and don’t speak the language. Maybe you’re an English teacher in Thailand, a member of the military stationed in Korea, a tourist in China, a homestay student in Japan, or on a school field trip in Germany.

English might be all you know, but you should be fine… right? After all, it’s not too hard to locate someone, usually college students, who are able to help you find your destination in English.

So with that said, is it really necessary to learn the language when in a foreign country? “Yes, and no.”

“No. You don’t need to learn a foreign language.”

When I lived in Korea, almost all of the expats I came across knew no more than a few simple words of Korean. They would spend their free time on weekends hanging out in bars with other expats. Their only Korean acquaintances were those who could speak fluent English. In general, they all had a slightly less favorable view of their experiences in Korea than I did, and it’s not difficult to see why. Had I never learned to speak Korean, or had I considered myself “good enough” with a few basic phrases, I would not have enjoyed my stay nearly as much as I did.

You will survive without being able to speak the local language when in a foreign country. Even only with cavemen-like hand signals, you’ll be able to order food, travel, and ask directions. You might also meet people who are able to speak English, and befriend them to help you with more difficult situations.

Humans are adaptable, and when necessary will find ways to live even without knowing how to speak a foreign language. Your time in the country will be much more difficult, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be rewarding.

Of course this route is only for people who have no interest in establishing any sort of relationship with the country they are visiting, or with its people. You will probably not be able to participate in local culture, or communicate with others, as anything more than a tourist.

Laughing at Billy

(Not speaking the local language can make you feel like you’re not a member of the community.)

Being a tourist is fine, but you’re truly missing out on what the country has to offer by not learning the language. There is a much better route.

“Yes. You should learn a foreign language.”

Although I said you can survive with only your English, you’re not going to get the most out of your stay. Being able to speak a foreign language will open up new doors for you, even if your knowledge is basic. And if you’re already living in a foreign country and are satisfied without speaking the language, I promise you will enjoy your stay even more if you learn it. And the more you learn, the more you’ll be able to experience.

Armed with the most basic words and phrases, you should be able to order food, introduce yourself, and possibly understand transportation signs. It doesn’t seem like much on the outside, but ordering food in English in a foreign country can be stressful. You never know if the person taking your order will understand you or take your order correctly. Being able to understand transportation signs means you can help yourself if you get lost, which is nice insurance to have. But basic words and phrases can only get you so far.

Speaking a foreign language at an intermediate level or higher will truly set you free in that country. You no longer need to be chaperoned when traveling, or need to worry about getting lost. You can ask locals for directions and basically live on your own.

But more than this, you’ll be able to meet, or even make friends, with people who you would never have been able to meet otherwise.

Watching a Solar Eclipse

(Solar eclipse photo taken by me in Tokyo, May 2012)

Solar eclipses are extremely rare events – I’d never seen one before and might never again. In 2012 I was traveling in Tokyo, and my friend who lives there informed me there would be one the very night before it happened. If not for her, I would never have seen this. She even gave me a pair of special glasses so I could view it.

Some of my longest friendships have been with people I’ve met through being able to speak Korean and Japanese. I still regularly email and occasionally meet up with friends who I met ten years ago through my interest in the Japanese language. A large portion of my online contacts came from eight years ago when I first traveled to Korea. It’s hard to imagine a version of my life without these people. But until you learn that foreign language yourself, you are the one living in that alternate reality.

And some of my best experiences in foreign countries have been meeting up with friends in those places too. Locals know their cities better than anyone, and will invite you to special events or introduce you to new places you never knew existed.

New Year's Sun in Korea

(Photo of the New Year’s sun taken by me from the top of Pal-yong-san, Korea in 2007)

New Year’s Eve I was invited along with a church group to hike to the top of a mountain early the next morning to watch the sun rise. Almost none of them could speak English, and I’m certain I would not have enjoyed the trip, or been invited on it, had I not known Korean too. I would have been asleep, and I definitely would have missed out.

Cat cafe

(Enjoying the evening at a Cat Café in Japan with some of my close friends. Yes, even the cats only spoke Japanese.)

Beach in Hong Kong

(Had I not talked to the bus driver, I would have missed this pristine beach while traveling in Hong Kong. Some of the cleanest sand I’d ever seen, and a very relaxing and fun way to spend a few hours in the afternoon.)

Sunset over Jeju Island

(Sunset over Jeju Island, Korea. Can you tell by now that I love the sun?)

But being able to travel to new places and make new friends isn’t the only reason I recommend learning a foreign language.

Fuji TV Studio

(Hanging out in the Fuji TV studio with some of my favorite TV hosts in Odaiba, Japan.)

You’re also opening up a whole new world of entertainment – music, movies, television shows, novels, poems, artwork, and theater, among others.

Think of your favorite form of media; for me, it’s movies. Or maybe you love books, or music. Try to imagine them suddenly disappearing. Now, try to imagine you’d never even known about them to begin with.

No matter where you are, media is everywhere. But how can you experience it in full without knowing the language they’re made in. There aren’t translations and subtitles available for everything. By not learning the local language, you’re truly missing out on this giant cache of entertainment. You won’t know you’ve missed it until you’ve found it.

In fact, everything I’ve mentioned so far is something I would not know I missed it until I learned the foreign language of the place I was staying. You might feel satisfied not speaking Japanese, or Korean, or Thai, or any language while in the country, but you’re still missing out. There’s so much out there just waiting to be experienced, and you’ll be thanking yourself profusely for taking the effort to learn.

Three Quick Helpful Habits

And learning a foreign language does take work. I’ve put together here some of my own learning habits I’ve used for learning several different languages to different levels. Hopefully they can be helpful to you as well.

1. Keep a regular schedule.

People can get frustrated when learning a language, especially a difficult one, because it takes time. But in order to learn a foreign language, you must study it regularly. If you’re a busy person, then set goals that stretch you but that are actually possible to obtain; only you know how much time you can set aside for study. Setting goals that are too low will not help you to learn the language, but setting unrealistic goals will only serve to demotivate you.

2. Practice in the day. Study and review at night.

The brain tends to memorize things you’ve learned toward the end of the day better than things you learned earlier. Use the daytime to practice your target language, but set aside some time at night to study and review grammar and vocabulary. While asleep, the brain will help to strengthen your memory for these concepts. The next day, remember to keep practicing what you’re learning.

3. Conversation is king.

Speaking your target language forces your brain to do several things, such as stressing to recall grammar forms and vocabulary. This is what you want. At first it will be difficult to form sentences, but the stress does wear off. You might struggle the first time to remember the word for “library,” but the next time you say it it’ll flow from your tongue without even thinking about it. This kind of stress is temporary, and it’s good for your language abilities.

If you don’t have many opportunities to speak with someone in person, at least try to meet people online or through instant messaging. If you’re practicing this way, at least read the words out loud to help your mind get used to hearing them. It’s not as effective as real conversation, but it’s certainly worlds better than nothing.


These are just a few tips for studying a foreign language that I like to remember. Try them out, and use what works for you.

Once more, I encourage everyone currently in a foreign country, or planning on traveling, to study and learn the language as much as you can. It will open new doors for you and help you to better enjoy your stay. You will come to appreciate your own abilities more as your language skills improve.

Good luck in your studies!

-Billy Go

Go Billy Korean portrait

1 thought on “Do You Need to Learn a Foreign Language to Stay in a Foreign Country?”

  1. Living in a country whose language you don’t speak is like watching a movie without the sound. It’s possible, but way less interesting.

    I stayed six months in Korea and like you met many expat who never learnt more than a few words of Korean. So they were extremely limited in what they could do. They didn’t visit the countryside because they were afraid nobody would speak English, and they missed all the typically Korean celebrations.

    Not to mention that speaking the language a bit immediately makes people interested in you. You are no longer the guy who is there because he has no choice, you become the guy who has a genuine interest in the country and its culture. And it changes everything.

    I had great times with Korean people, even with my broken Korean. Cause I knew enough to show that I was learning actively, and they did their best to explain me what I didn’t understand.

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