What it’s really like living in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language

Lyon, France
Lyon, France

I’m halfway through my adventures living here in France, so I thought it would only be fitting to write about what it is like living in a foreign country – one where you don’t speak the language. This post can be helpful for anybody interested in venturing to a foreign place to learn a language, but as I am enrolled in an exchange program my experiences will reflect that.
So, what will it be like living in a foreign country, barely speaking the language?

God where do I start…

It will be frustrating, stressful, embarrassing, hilarious, adventurous, rewarding, and wonderful. You will feel smart; you will feel stupid. You will feel lonely and you will feel loved. You will learn so SO much. You will find out who you are, and who you want to be. You will want to go home and you will want to stay forever.

Every day is a new adventure. When I wake up in the morning, I have a rough idea of what I will be doing for the day – but things always change. Sometimes I wake up happy and excited that I am here in France, other days I question what the fuck I am doing with my life. Some days I feel like I’ve grown so much and am becoming a great human being, other days I feel incredible insecure and unsure of who I am and what I want. That’s all a part of it – figuring (and not figuring) it out.

I had a stressful day, okay?
I had a stressful day, okay?

It will be frustrating and stressful. The plus side to this frustration is that there is a cure. It’s called wine. You can buy a bottle at your local convenient store for only 3 euros. Do it. France is extra-frustrating. Their bureaucratic system is an effing mess. They still do everything by paper, and they have this laid-back “it’ll get done when it gets done” kind of vibe – which is super rad because it means I get a 4 day weekend  – but rarely anything actually gets done or it does, but 3 months later. I’ve been here for 2 months, and I am still not registered for class, still have not gotten all my course descriptions/syllabuses and still don’t have reading lists for my classes. I don’t even know how much money I have in my French bank account. Their online banking is crap and completely inaccessible to me and they haven’t heard of receipts with the amount in your account listed on it.

The most frustrating part will be getting everything in order when you first arrive. There is so much to be done. Bank account, foreign phone number, insurances, visas, metro plan etc etc etc etc. On top of all that jazz, you get to do it in a language you barely know!!! That was probably the worst part of my experience – and I survived. It’s overwhelming, slow, and super frustrating. But like I said before, buy a bottle of cheap wine and just think about that wine while you’re waiting in line to throw away your money at some other fee for some insurance thing for some other shit that you don’t really understand because it’s all in some other fucking language – trust me, the wine helps.

Spilt coffee all over my white shirt.. on the train.. while sitting across from a hot French man.
Spilt coffee all over my white shirt.. on the train.. while sitting across from a hot French man.

It will be embarrassing. You will be embarrassed multiple times. For not knowing how things work or doing something that is socially awkward. Picture this: I am sitting at the back of the class in one of my lectures. A class of 100+ people and I am the only exchange student. The prof knows that I am an exchange student, and trying to be kind, asks the class “Qui ne sait pas Stephanie?” (Who doesn’t know Stephanie?) Everyone puts up their hand. Literally, everyone. So what do I do? Laugh. And so does everyone else. I made friends with some students in the class after that day.

One of the biggest hurdles you need to overcome in a foreign country is accepting that you are a foreigner. You are the odd one out. And that’s okay. That’s even cool. You’re not less than anyone, you’re just different. And you NEED to be able to laugh during these awfully awkward situations, because there are many, and if you don’t- you’ll never survive.

Living in a foreign country can be super funny. Not only does the language barrier intimidate and embarrass you, but it also gives you some good entertainment. One time, a few friends and I were eating ice cream when the waiter heard our accent and began a small conversation with us. Then he laughs and goes “I am a big dick” and walks away….. Pardon? Apparently, he thought that meant that he wasn’t very good at speaking English (you don’t say).

I guess we will sleep on the roof tonight.
I guess we will sleep on the roof tonight.

It will be adventurous. Okay, I don’t know if this is for everyone but it definitely is for me. Maybe I just get myself in these types of situations but my trip has been a constant adventure. I have hitched a ride to Paris with a Catholic priest, changed in the back of a taxi, gotten lost – so. many. times., caught a guy with his hands in my purse, missed my train, snuck into first class (and stayed), been harassed by hundreds of men, assaulted by others, woken up on a beach with a soaking wet dress from the pool I jumped into at a club during a lil jon concert, and slept on a roof. Casual.

Happiest person alive
Happiest person alive

It will be rewarding. There will come a point where most of the frustration and stress has passed. Or even if it hasn’t, you have learnt how to handle it, and you start to realize that you’re getting better at speaking the language, and “fitting in” to the culture around you. You’ve learnt how to get around, how to dress and how to act in this new country. This is the better part of the experience. You realize that the reason you’re here – to learn and grow – has been achieved. Now you get to enjoy it and continue to improve in this new and wonderful country that you’ve made your home.

In love with France
In love with France

You will always be learning. Wether it be in your actually classes – learning to adapt to a new way of learning, or by improving your oral, grammar and writing skills. Or through learning about the actually subjects – in another language, from a different perspective and with different insights than you could have gotten from your home country. However, you’re education in a foreign country will not be confined to the walls of a classroom. You will be learning all the time. You’ll be learning how to work the new metro system, how to open wine bottles like a pro, how to socialise with people in this country – because it will be different than what you’re used to. You’ll be learning about yourself. Who you are, and who you want to be. You’ll be learning about a different culture. And not just reading about it, you’ll be living it. You’ll realize things that you would have never been able to learn from a book or class or movie or website. Things that you have to live to understand.

French friends!
French friends!

Most of all your experience will (well, should) be wonderful. You get to meet new people, try different foods, learn so much, shop in different stores, taste delicious coffee, indulge in mouth-watering desserts and just be you in a totally different environment than you are used too. This experience is yours, and you will get out of it what you put into it. Be thankful, all the time, for everything. Be thankful for the frustration and the stress – because they are helping you grow. Be thankful for the people who are going through the same things as you – they are your lifelines. Be thankful for your friends and family who stay in touch with you and those who don’t – you’ve now learnt who you’ll continue to stay close to when you move to a different city, and which relationships will fade away. Be thankful for the good days, and be thankful for the bad ones. Be thankful that you are you and that you decided to take the risk and go on this wonderful adventure.

My last piece of advice:

Your health is your number one priority. Physically and mentally. Stay active, sleep enough, and eat properly. (All with moderation of course…. I’m definitely not one to say no to the plate of french fries, the second pint of cider, or staying up till 6am on Saturday night. ESPECIALLY when travelling.) Enjoy, indulge, and take advantage of everything. But don’t forget that this can all catch up to you and sometime’s it’s okay to say no and opt for the gym instead of the party. Remember to stay mentally healthy. Like I said, this experience is what you make it. You need to find things and people near you that make you happy. You need to do your best to stay positive even during extraordinarily frustrating and stressful days. Buy the damn shoes. Money will probably be an issue while you’re here. And no, you probably shouldn’t go blowing all your money on materialistic

Vive la France
Vive la France

crap as soon as you arrive. But, you’re here to enjoy – so do. Overall, make smart choices with your budget (And PLEASE, do make a budget) but it’s okay to spend the extra dollars here and there because in the end it’s just money.

I hope that everyone who has the opportunity to live in a foreign country, takes it. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made, and I have made lots of great decisions.

Seriously, do it.



2 thoughts on “What it’s really like living in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language

Add yours

  1. Oh, wow. It sounds terrible and wonderful at the same time. I grew up military and lived in Germany for two years. Not knowing the language can be incredibly frustrating. Also, cultural differences can complicate things…


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