Publish at May 10 2022 Updated May 16 2022

Expatriate in V.O.

The challenge of language in expatriation

"No man is a prophet in his own country", Jesus of Nazareth is said to have said, around the year 30, according to words reported in the Gospel of Saint Luke. Expatriation has always been a solution to this situation, voluntary or forced, improvised or carefully considered. Whether by choice or not, every expatriation suggests the hope of a better future with greater professional, social, family opportunities or simply to live and survive.

It is often said that one of the greatest challenges of expatriation is the language. But what is it really? How do we prepare ourselves before and during this great upheaval in our lives? Is it really that easy to expatriate to a country that has the same language as yours? Between nostalgia for the language of our origins and the quest for the foreigner, let's expatriate ourselves, far from the beaten path in search of the 21st century expatriate.

In a galaxy far, far away...

It's impossible to begin our peregrinations without a little nod to the Star Wars saga, whose official world day was celebrated on May 4. Indeed, in this universe as colorful as fantastic, the protagonists are thus expatriates in search of recognition, glory or opportunities of any kind! Although morphologically different, speaking completely improbable languages (?), the heroes seem to evolve in an eventual peaceful cohabitation, in spite of their physical or linguistic characteristics. And what about the famous protocol droid C-3PO who describes himself as "mastering more than six million forms of communication". With a guide like that, no worries about languages here or elsewhere!

A daunting challenge

But back to the point. Who says expatriation says language, because, quite often, expatriates change languages in addition to countries. In addition to the cultural, social, food, clothing, societal... aspects inherent to the new host country, it is advisable to question one's linguistic convictions. Knowing -and ideally mastering- the new language quickly proves to be essential if one wants to best promote integration into the host society.

To do this, there is no great unspoken secret. The key to success lies in immersion, namely living like a local! Chatting with locals, participating in local activities, socializing with locals, taking classes, watching TV, listening to the radio, reading newspapers, using apps... there are plenty of ways! Before, during and after, it's up to you to become a pro at the target language. The speed and success of this goal depends mostly on you and your involvement.


Many language schools, both online and face-to-face, even offer customized training that allows future and newcomers to learn, deepen or even perfect their language level. This type of program is often called "relocation" and offers, in addition to "traditional" courses, the possibility of discovering the language in context, through local texts and appropriate vocabulary. I will not yet talk about francization, an excellent system set up by the Quebec Ministry of Immigration and Francization, which theoretically allows any newcomer to acquire in 9 months a sufficient level of French to get by socially and professionally in the Canadian province, but rather another experience, that of Switzerland. 

In fact, in 2022, this small country has become the number 1 destination for expatriates, who choose it for its quality of life, its economic and political stability, its excellent salary conditions, the quality of its educational system or the balance between private and professional life. As for figures, in 2016, Switzerland had more than 2.4 million expatriates for a total population of 8.3 million. More than one in three inhabitants is therefore a foreigner on Swiss soil!

To come back to the language, these relocation courses therefore allow them, for example, to use the digital system commonly used in French-speaking cantons, a system that is oh so loved and appreciated by learners as to the ease represented compared to the traditional French system. Indeed, goodbye to the abominable soixante-dix, quatre-vingts and quatre-vingt-dix that give so many headaches to Francophile learners! Welcome to septante, huitante and nonante!

I speak, therefore I am 

In Rome, let's do as the Romans do! But what if you land in a country where you are already a native speaker? 

An Englishman moving to the United States or Australia, an Argentinian going to live in Spain or Mexico, a Brazilian emigrating to Macau or Cape Verde, or...a French woman moving to Quebec, like me, for almost 17 years! Easy, you think? We speak the same language, no worries....

Yes, but no, because if it's true that it's a chance to not have to struggle for several months in the simple fact of trying to communicate, it is not less that the expectations of the locals are also higher. Between misunderstandings, surprises, ways of saying and doing or even worse, misunderstandings, we often walk on eggshells.

Locals knowing you are on the "same linguistic side" will not necessarily try to explain the meaning of their words and even less to do so in a delicate and controlled way, at the risk of creating pathological-linguistic misunderstandings because having absolutely different meanings in your country.

Examples? "Have a hand full of thumbs, hang up your skates..." For the non-neophytes, here is the translation "to be clumsy" and "to quit".  Of course, it works both ways. How many times have I triggered giggles from Quebec speakers when they hear me say "ça me casse les pieds" when it would have been so clear to say "ça me tanne"!

Once an expat, always an expat? It all depends on the feeling of belonging to one's new host country and the efforts one is willing to make to forge a cocoon of optimum well-being...

Sources and illustrations

Learning a new language, one of the challenges of expatriation, ACS Assurances

Being an expat in a country that speaks your mother tongue: beware of the danger? Female expat,

Pixabay, and 

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