A Letter to Expats Who Don’t Speak the Local Language

In my time living in China and Costa Rica, I’ve been in community with tons of expats. It’s natural for me to drift towards people who I share a native language and cultural background with, and that usually means Americans. I’ve spent about three, four months living in each country, and I’ve met a lot of people who have moved, whether it’s permanently or semi-permanently.

What I’ve found surprising is that there’s always a significant amount of people who don’t speak the local language, and what’s more, aren’t trying to learn it. They’ve written it off as too difficult, or simply not worth their time or resources. Some of them have a throwaway class once a month to justify that they are still trying.

But then, how are they able to do the things they need to do in order to survive? How do they go to the bank, the pharmacy, even order food?

What I’ve experienced is that they shift that burden onto the locals. And the way I’ve seen it, it’s not usually a mutualistic relationship. With tourism, the locals can profit off of people who are simply unable to navigate a country on their own. But with long term stays, the locals are stuck constantly doing favors for those same people. Maybe it’s the next door neighbor who speaks just enough English to help them get set up, or the friendly waiter at a restaurant they frequent who answers their daily questions about running errands. Maybe it’s even become a long term romantic partner, who is stuck setting up everything from doctor’s appointments to making sure the bills are always paid.

I know this is true because I’ve done it — I’m definitely not blameless. It was my Airbnb host who had to activate my SIM card in Costa Rica because they were speaking too rapidly on the phone for me to understand. It’s the locals I constantly ask for directions in Costa Rica because they don’t use addresses here. And perhaps I’ve always felt conscious of how much space I take up because I was socialized as a woman, but there’s always some guilt when I know I’m taking energy and time from people in a way that I’m not really ever going to repay.

Perhaps the favors aren’t such a big deal, especially if you spread them out so that no one is ever expending hours and hours to help you, or if people don’t seem to mind. But it’s more complicated than that, because race, ethnicity, and class all play a huge role in why people may not seem so bothered by that constant need for help.

In America, people who don’t speak the language are terrorized. Americans have no patience for them, or worse, they condescend and speak English to them in a way that they would speak to a child. The tone shifts to become notably frustrated and morally superior. I know it because I’ve seen it happen with my own parents countless times. This is what happens when people of color do not speak English in a predominantly white country.

It’s made worse by the fact that English is so often seen as the de facto expat language, not just in America, but in most communities abroad, whether the expats are from Europe, Asia, Africa, or any other part of the world. People who are native English speakers are so much less likely to learn a second language than people who natively speak any other language, especially once you factor in the abundant opportunities that they have to learn a second language. Whether or not they’re conscious of it, they’re aware of how valuable the English language is, how prized it is, and what comes with speaking it — the ability to get away with not even attempting to learn any other languages.

It’s different when you’re a white person speaking English in a non-English speaking country. People will absolutely respond to you differently. Imagine, first, how you would respond to a man of color in tattered rags, asking you for money. Then imagine how you would respond to a white man in a tailored suit, asking you for money. Most of us would respond to the second person much more politely and respectfully, because of his apparent class in society: his whiteness, his wealth. The locals will respond to your own whiteness and class status the same way. A white person is usually seen as being from a desirable country, a desirable culture, and more often than not, assumed to have enough class status to have even have arrived in a different country in the first place.

Even if the locals never seem to mind helping you, it’s the responsibility of the tourist and the expat to be vigilant of how much space they take up, to be aware of the place they may hold in society and not to take recklessly abuse their privilege. Expats need to confront the question of why they aren’t expending hours, days, and taking every opportunity possible in order to learn the language as quickly as possible, to become autonomous.

But still, it’s deeper than just being able to navigate the country independently. There’s a basic element of respect and authenticity that comes with speaking the language. The experiences you’re able to have expand infinitely when you’re able to speak the language, and you’re able to experience the culture in a much more truthful way. Language is an immensely powerful experience, something that is cultural, emotional, and deeply human. As you learn the language, you learn words that may not even exist in English, or you learn how their grammar and sentence structure may shape the way they think. You learn common phrases that tell you about the language and country’s past, that tell you about their life philosophy. When you learn the local language, you’re showing and practicing respect, daily, by taking the time and energy to truly learn about their culture in a genuine way.

Language is too often appropriated and used as a decoration, whether it’s in the form of Instagram captions or tattoos. This genuinely starts to move away from cultural appreciation to cultural appropriation. This is people taking the parts of a culture that are aesthetically pleasing, the parts that make them seem more worldly or more intelligent, without actually taking the time to learn the language, and it’s frankly disrespectful. Learning a language is a beautiful process, but it’s not always an easy one. For most people, it’s time consuming, and at times, uncomfortable and frustrating. It’s tempting to want to skip that entire process and just settle for another locally prepared meal as the token for cultural appreciation that day. But so many languages have died, have become erased, because they were not seen as valuable enough, especially with countless indigenous languages. Sometimes that decision is malicious and deliberate, and sometimes it’s well-intentioned, because we’d prefer to spend the time and resources on something else. But the choice is always there.

I’m guilty of it, too. I’ve often opted for a number of mindless tasks instead of putting in quality time to learn a language while living in a country. I still read Mandarin at a fifth grade level, and Spanish at full speed is still be difficult for me. Part of the reason I wrote this article was for myself — it’s an articulation and a reminder of why I need to be more intentional with my time here, that I need to actively choose to dedicate my time and resources to language learning.

In my time living abroad, I’ve had really amazing friendships with expats, many of whom might be reading this and taking offense — but this was never meant as an assault on their moral principles. In fact, it would make me incredibly sad if the takeaway from this is defensiveness and anger rather than a potential opportunity to grow and learn. This one thing does not decide whether or not someone is a good person, a respectful or likable expat. The choices that people make every single day dictate that, and perhaps this is one that simply needed to be brought to the forefront.

My name’s Viv and I use she or they pronouns. I’m a 23 year old Chinese American living in North Carolina. I like writing about identity, race, and healing.