Going on a holiday is easy. Book a ticket, board the plane, get to your hotel and relax. You can hire a tour guide who shows you around and tells you about the culture of the country you’re visiting but it is difficult to immerse yourself in local cultures and get out of your comfort zone on short-term trips. When you spend an extended period of time abroad, however, it can help you grow into a better person.
When living in a foreign country it, most of the time, involves speaking a different language. And even if you have learnt the language in school, you’ll most certainly feel a bit lost when you first get to your new home. I remember the time when I first arrived in Australia in 2010. By that time, I had finished school with a pretty good mark in English which made me think I wouldn’t have any problems. But then ‘real life’ hit me: In school, I had learnt how to talk about “global warming”, the American election system and Shakespearean drama but how to have simple everyday conversations fell along the wayside. Learning this doesn’t take too long but to actually be able to participate in more complex conversations took me about half a year. Reaching fluency in a foreign language takes even longer. A good indicator is when you’re able to be funny in that language, then you’ve made it! The benefits are obvious: knowing another language helps you in almost every aspect of your life. It doesn’t only enhance your CV, it also helps you to get to know way more people and makes your future travels easier.
Fluency in two languages comes with a side effect. According to many scientific studies conducted in the last 50 years, bilinguals also change their personalities when switching the language. The phenomenon is called “cultural frame switching”. The concept can be used to describe the use of language depending on the context and, thus, can be connected to cultural accommodation. This can be seen when bilinguals respond to situations with the language that applies best to the situation present. Evidentially, language has an impact on an individual’s thinking process because the language itself primes the speaker’s cultural values, attitudes and memory, which in turn affects behaviour.
Thus, becoming fluent in a foreign language doesn’t “only” improve your language skills, it can influence your personality as well.
After you’ve moved to a foreign country you’re faced with challenges on a daily basis. Firstly, you have to find a suitable place to live, deal with administrative tasks and – probably the hardest – make new friends. It can be hard and very frustrating at first but after a while you’ll have developed a resilience. Facing all those challenges will make you stronger and helps you to learn more about yourself.
When you’ve finally settled in, you can start to observe the nation whose country is your home now. You will learn new ways of doing things and understand how a different historical background has predefined the current attitudes. You can also immerse yourself in the local language, not only to improve your language skills, but to build a better picture for yourself of cultural norms and expectations. I still remember, as if it was yesterday, when I went shopping for the first time in Australia. When I got to the checkout, the cashier asked politely “Hello, how are you?” – I was totally flabbergasted. Why does she ask me that? Do I look sad? Or sick? Or something else? It took me another few days to realise that it was just common friendliness and that responding with a simple “thanks” is the appropriate way.
Cultural differences make you think about your native country and give you the chance to view it objectively. You might find that what you once chose to moan about suddenly becomes something that you appreciate about your country. Living abroad helps you to see the positive elements of your native home. In your home away from home, you’ll also get to know local traditions that you might adapt and bring back to your home country. In Australia, I really liked that everyone thanks the bus driver when exiting the bus. I adapted this habit and now I always thank every bus driver when I get off the bus. I do get looked at weirdly for doing that, but I don’t mind. I think it is a very nice gesture and I’ll definitely continue doing it.
Despite the costs and effort you have to deal with when moving abroad, it is not as difficult as it sounds. No matter how scary it may seem to deal with estate agents, local authorities and a new employer, some or all of whom don’t speak your language, you’ll sooner or later find your way. And even if the place to which you relocated didn’t turn out to be the best fit for you, you will have grown as a person and found out what you stand for.