by Missional Impact


7 Tips to Help You Own Your New Language

Tired of pointing, smiling, and looking lost in your host culture? This advice will have you saying gracias, grazie, and gamsahamnida like a local.

Izzy Ashton | an expat living in Asia

You’ve landed in your new country of residence. Whether or not you plan to spend some time in language school, you’re going to need to learn a thing or two to navigate this unfamiliar world. What’s the best way to give directions to a taxi driver? What word do you need to ask for the best price on vegetables at the market? What’s the best way to express thanks? (The words above, graciasgrazie, and gamsahamnida, say “thank you” in Spanish, Italian, and Korean, respectively.)
When we first moved to our present Asian location, my husband Michael* and I busied ourselves finding an apartment and setting up appliances and furniture. Doing this required more language ability than we brought with us. Here are seven things we challenged ourselves to do —and you can, too. 
1. Listen Actively
By the time babies learn to talk, they’ve been listening to the world their whole lives. They first try out some sounds and then practice putting those sounds together. When learning another language, take time to listen first! It’s easy to tune out words I don’t understand, such as conversations beside me on the train or announcements over a shopping center loudspeaker. But as I actively tune my brain into the sounds around me, the more normal they become. The more I listen to the rhythm of the sentences, the more I can mimic the flow myself, even when I don’t know the meaning.


2. Get Outside
It is easy and comfortable to stay inside my apartment or spend time with only other English speakers. It feels like work to step outside and get groceries or order at a restaurant. But these are the things I must do. I need to walk my dog, because it puts me in contact with my neighbors. I need to smile and greet the security officer at my building. I need to answer the questions the cashier is asking me as I check out of the local store. 
In each of these interactions, I may not fully understand the words, but I am learning the language and contexts. I know now that before my store items are scanned, I will be asked for my rewards card. After my items are scanned, I will be asked if I want a plastic bag. At home, I understand a young mom will ask my permission before showing her toddler my dog from their balcony. I still don’t know what the grandmother was saying to me while she walked inside our building, but I’m sure I’ll learn eventually.
3. Use Technology
Our first week, Michael and I lodged in a long-term stay hotel. Our unit was equipped with air conditioning, a television, and a washing machine, each labeled in the local language. Suddenly, something as simple as washing our clothes became confusing. 
When the dirty clothes pile got big enough, I sat down in front of the machine with a notepad and my phone. Opening Google Translate,** I got to work. This useful app provided meanings and words I could, with regular use, commit to memory.
Maybe the language you’re learning isn’t on Google Translate. Other expats may recommend alternative apps they have found helpful. 
4. Find Your People
In your first week, find people you can go to with your questions. Are they coworkers at the office? Another teacher at your school? Maybe it’s a local store owner who has a son studying in your home country. Whatever the connection, remember you are not alone. Ask for translations, pronunciations, and definitions. Later, when you feel more comfortable, you can be that person for someone else.
5. Ask Questions
You’ve got more questions than answers at this point, and don’t be afraid to ask them. Do I use a title when greeting someone? At what time do I switch from saying “Good afternoon” to “Good evening?” How do I confidently order food while dining out? Point to the menu item and try to pronounce it, then listen carefully to the waiter’s correction. 
6. Celebrate the Mistakes
On Sunday mornings, we go to church. Afterward, we take a taxi across town to have lunch with friends at a local chapter of an international fellowship. Recently, we received a phone call saying our kitchen appliances were going to be installed on what we thought was Sunday morning. We changed plans; stayed home from church, had our own quiet coffee and breakfast at home, and planned dinner with friends. 
Sunday morning came and went with no sign of the appliance installers. We went on with our day until my sheepish husband announced, “So I just learned that the word for ‘Monday’ sounds a whole lot like the word for ‘Sunday’!” 
Monday morning, sure enough, the installers came to put our kitchen together. This could have felt frustrating, but instead we celebrated another mistake made and lesson learned. We will listen carefully next time for the difference between Sunday and Monday!
7. Take a Break
This is where Netflix comes in…or a book…or whatever it is that fills up your bucket. My husband loves rocking out to his favorite Spotify playlist while we’re in the car or while he’s fixing something in the house. I enjoy getting cozy on the couch with my Kindle. Whatever it is for you find a way at the end or beginning of the day to take a breather. Your brain needs time to process and file away all this new information. Your body needs downtime to rest. 
You may feel unproductive and sense the ever-growing list before you of things to learn, but you won’t be able to fully absorb them when you’re exhausted. Get enough sleep, keep drinking water, and do something in your own language each day. 

*Italics indicate pseudonyms.

**Recommendations from the author are not necessarily endorsements by Missional Impact, nor does Missional Impact receive any benefit from them.

Image by rawpixel from Pixabay



Izzy AshtonIzzy Ashton holds a masters’ degree in counseling, is rarely seen without a book or pen in her hand and enjoys learning how to help people thrive. She and her husband Michael are experienced entrepreneurs who develop businesses cross-culturally that will make a positive impact on their communities. From her home along the Mediterranean, she is striving to learn the balance of well-being and self-care in a rigorous business world. Talk to Izzy.


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  • Charles Anyanwu

    Charles Anyanwu

    Izzy Ashton thank you for your information about how missionaries can overcome cross-cultural challenge. I need your mentoring network. Here is my
  • KazenoKo


    This is a great advice, Izzy! I'm from Japan and now certified as an ESOL teacher - wonderful tips for any English learning students. Great advice for my missionary friends in Japan who are also learning Japanese there as well as my Japanese friends who are learning English among the missionaries I work with!
  • Rene Rossouw

    Rene Rossouw

    Hi Folks, I remember when I tried to learn Hebrew how it seemed to be such an impossible task. One day I was still literate on home soil and within a few flying hours later, I was illiterate and stared at labels to determine contents... We attended Hebrew classes and we expanded our vocabulary by plastering notes with the Hebrew words all over the flat. Table = shulchan, Door = Delet ect... We then started to substitute English for Hebrew words. That was a lot of fun and a very unique kind of slang. We would ask for ma'im (water) from the mitkarer (fridge). OK you get the idea .. I'm back home now but still refer to the floor as the ritzpah. This won't help much with grammer, but at least it will give you a handle on vocabulary. Good luck and do keep that sense of humor !
  • Izzy Ashton

    Izzy Ashton

    Rene, this is such a good tip! You're right about the unique kind of slang - I find myself needing to think more carefully when talking with friends from my home country too, or I'll use that slang with everyone. I need to do more of that post-it idea myself, so helpful! Kazenoko, love that thought. Yes! Tips for everyone learning a new language. Charles, we will be in touch soon about our mentor network. Thank you for reaching out!