Living in a country without speaking the language

Following on from some posts in another thread, I’m curious to know people’s thoughts on moving to another country (not just France) and whether one should learn the language.

My thoughts are that Brits are spoiled somewhat because English is almost universally spoken so we don’t need to learn a foreign language. But by not doing so, is there a risk people may miss out on the local culture, really getting to know the indigenous people, etc…?


Excellent topic.

Learning French, or indeed any language, not even to reach fluency, teaches us so much about the nation in which we have chosen to spend our lives. With language we learn about the history, foods, families and much more that combine to make up society. Understanding also leads to empathy and folds us into the fabric of the country.

To not speak French while living here is to miss out on so much and I feel is a bit sad and lonelier for some.


I can’t imagine living in a country where you can’t speak the language :man_facepalming:


I simply could not do it. I am not even comfortable being on holiday in a country where I do not understand what is going on around me.


The English are indeed spoilt in this respect.

When I first started traveling I always made a lot of effort to learn at least some of the language of the destination countries. But as my work became more and more international I confess I would often jet off to places without trying to learn any Albanian, Mongolian, Lithuanian… When you’re dong it every other week it’s (a) not possible to learn dozens of languages and the technical stuff they’re actually paying you for; and (b) they all speak English better than you’ll ever be able to speak Albanian or whatever anyway!

A good friend of mine - who is Hungarian, now living in Singapore - who I worked with when he was teaching at a uni in Tallinn - once astonished a group of us by saying he knew almost no Estonian. The university taught all its courses in English. What about shopping? somebody asked - and my friend replied that literally everybody in Tallinn speaks English - he never had any problem.

But these are small countries, small languages. If you come to live in a big-world-language country like France, you do, of course, need to speak French.


Mmmm… I have lived in several countries where lots of expats, western workers on limited term contracts, managed to spend 3-4 years without picking up more than 2 words of the local language. And that only to order another beer. It was so because it was possible, particularly as they would hang out mostly with each other. The ‘expat bubble’. So you can but should you. The difference here is when/if you are a permanent resident.

Something I found, albeit living temporarily in different countries, was that at least trying to speak with the nationals in their own language showed them that I liked them enough to have made the effort. This made my stays so much more satisfying and memorable. I hope for all concerned :nerd_face:


I think if you don’t speak the language(s) of the country you live in it leads to a sort of social and intellectual impoverishment and/or misunderstandings, a bit like being colour-blind in an art gallery. Assuming everyone speaks English is grim and unfortunately lots of people believe it. Even in eg India where English was the official language of my business, probably 2/3 of the time people in my office spoke Gujarati and Maharashtri. In Pakistan I used Persian and Urdu and Pushtu a lot more than English. If you speak German and have a bit of nous Danish/Norwegian/Swedish aren’t too hard to decipher (reading). And so on. I have made the effort to learn the language of all the places I have lived in (but then I like learning languages and it’s probably easier if you grow up bi- or trilingual).

Yes quite


I used to feel sorry for “isolated Brits” around here… but no longer.
I now leave them to their own devices… and they seem happy enough.
They contact me quickly enough when/if they have problems…

The Mairie has stopped asking me why they don’t join the local clubs and associations… come to the village meals/celebrations/commemorations/whatever.
My excuses were getting very, very weary and worn.
Yes, I did send them all the email… but… blah blah…

The excuse to me, from the Brit side was most often … “well, we won’t understand what’s going on, will we…” aaargh.

BUT, we are all different and if they are happy in their bubbles… let 'em get on with it.

Personally, by throwing ourselves in at the deep end … we now have a wide circle of friends across France, who like to try out English on us (if they have some) but most of all… these friends have enjoyed introducing us to a way of life we could never have dreamed of.


I think @vero has hit 2 nails on the head.

Some of us learn languages more easily than others, and really enjoy doing so. And the other cogent point is that some of us grew up in different countries and were bi, if not multi, lingual from a very young age. The latter maybe even leading to the former.

Not all the Brits who live or have a maison secondaire in France are this category. For many, France is the first and only place they have lived, not just visited, in their lives of being UK nationals and residents. I’m afraid UK schooling (that which is not public school) is a little sketchy on the teaching of foreign languages.

Dear posters, may we possibly consider the Brits who do come to live in France without speaking French are really quite brave but challenged by whatever (i.e.shyness or fear of being misunderstood), and may we be a little more compassionate here?


When I say “how can you bear to live somewhere you don’t speak the language?” it isn’t blaming, it is because it would be hell for me not to speak or read the language if I am somewhere.


Very true @Stella and @vero

I’ll get back to my own bubbles! :clinking_glasses::champagne::partying_face:

Absolutely - there are all sorts of reasons for people having poor French - including barriers that anybody might find insurmountable - disability, etc - so it’'s important not to leap to judgement.


Very well said :+1:

I can still remember the icy chill running down my spine, as we stood outside our newly-bought French house… fresh from the Notaire’s… where we’d spent so many confused hours…
I’m suddenly thinking…
“what the heck have we done… no-one speaks English… this is a BIG mistake!!!”


When I was albeit briefly in UK before decamping to France, I was introduced by a lovely girl at our local hair salon to her father who had recently retired from Hong Kong to live with her. As you do.

The lovely old gentleman spoke not a word of English and was very lonely. I was only too happy to practice my Cantonese with him and reminisce about the place I had just left myself and will always consider the home of my heart.

Language opens wonderful doors!


In my case I was a student at uni, and needed to spend a year in industry. All my attempts at finding work had failed and the Placements Assistant (a lovely French lady) asked me if I was interested in working in Paris for Air France for a year. One of the other students had dropped out so it was a win-win for both them and me!

I still remember arriving at Orly, only able to speak GCSE-level French and having an interview. It was like being in an episode of 'Allo 'Allo :grin:


Oh yes I know people do it. The military, British Counci officersl, delegates and workers in various sectors. But living in a British outpost abroad is not a lifestyle I could come to terms with. I would not feel at home in a culture I did not understand and could not react to and interact with directly, and I am not comfortable having to rely on other people to manage the basic routine aspects of daily life. And so if I did not speak a country’s language, and was not confident that I could learn, which at my age I accept that I could not, I would not go and live in that country because it would not be an enriching experience for me, it would be the very opposite, but that is me and I do not expect everybody to be the same.
I have known Brits who lived here and never got beyond very basic French, but were good communicators in that they were able to make themselves understood, joined in, one was a member of the local football team, and they led full and fulfilling lives. You do not need to be fluent in order to communicate. They were outgoing people whereas I am not, and their personalities more than compensated for not speaking much French, and they were not as anal as I am about asking for help and advice and feeling the need to be on top of details. We are all different, I think the important thing is to know our own strengths and weaknesses and live accordingly.


That’s the other nail on the head!

Learning another language takes courage. The courage to make mistakes and keep going

:trophy: @Gareth :trophy: @Stella

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:trophy: @Sandcastle

Nobody looks silly because they try, nobody should feel ashamed of getting things wrong, the essential thing is having a bash. And the more languages you can manage the more clues you have usually, and the less you worry about not doing things perfectly or being up against a different language family or script or whatever, you just have a go.