You could retire many places overseas and, at least in particular cities and regions, get by without learning to speak the local language. In Ireland and Belize, for example, everyone speaks English. And in Paris, Panama City, Buenos Aires, and Istria, many of the locals speak enough English so that you could survive without making any real effort to communicate in their lingo.
In a place like Ajijic, Mexico, or Boquete, Panama, home to big and growing communities of retirees from North America, you could insulate yourself from the local population, make a new life among fellow expats, and avoid the language issue altogether. Some people live in these towns for years without acquiring more than a handful of local words. You could also count on a spouse, friend, assistant, or translator to fill in gaps in your fluency. But your experience of the place will not be the same as it would be if you made the effort to learn to speak with your new neighbors in their native language.
Even a little effort is appreciated. I wouldn’t say that I speak Spanish. However, before we moved to Panama, I worked to learn at least enough of the language to get around. I can say hello, good-bye, thank you, and please. I can give a taxi driver directions and order dinner in a restaurant where the waiter speaks no English. I can ask for help or for a beer at the bar. If you're thinking of retiring to a country where the language is something other than English, think about making the effort to speak the local language at least at this level. Here are nine tips for learning a new language:
Listen to podcasts. You can listen to someone speaking the language on an iPod or in your car while you're doing something else. Coffee Break Spanish is a good choice for a beginner. Notes in Spanish is helpful if you already know a bit of the language.
Connect your language study to other interests. Study French while listening to podcasts about wine-making in French or Spanish by reading movie reviews.
Don't sweat the grammar. Your objective is to learn to communicate, not to impress your new neighbors with your understanding of sentence structure or verb conjugations.
Understand how you learn best. Some of us are visual learners, audio learners, or tactile learners. Adjust your learning plan to suit your learning style. For example, maybe you'd do better listening to a podcast and reading the script for it at the same time.
Speak the language as much as possible. Get out there and use the language. You’re unlikely to get better if you don’t practice. Have conversations with yourself in the shower if you have no language partner.
Find a native speaker to practice with. Encourage him or her to correct you, particularly your pronunciation.
Read in the new language. Focus on reading materials that interest you. Local newspapers are also good.
Try the Ultralingua software dictionary. With this dictionary you can read books online and place the cursor over a word to pop up the definition.
Date someone who speaks the language. The best way to learn a new language is to acquire a significant other in your new home. My daughter, Kaitlin, age 15 at the time, studied French as a nearly full-time occupation during our first year in Paris. She learned to speak the language, but she didn't become fluent until she started dating a young Frenchman. Of course, this isn't an option for everyone.
Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.