Learning the Language Aids the Expat Spouse

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If you are the spouse of an expat, you bear two burdens that the expatriot does not. First, you are responsible for household tasks, especially helping the family to adjust as a whole. Second, while the expatriot travels overseas for the sake of his or her career, you might do so at the expense of your career. For example, if your company cannot provide a position overseas, your career may suffer from this perceived “loss of time.” You may have to return to a brand-new job search in the home country with the added blot of “unproductive time” on the resume. In this post I’m going to focus on the second burden, although it overlaps with the first.

A career spouse who learns the host language has hope. If you learn a language you will network more successfully, and finding a job overseas, just like finding one in the US, depends on networking. Beyond the immediate advantages of knowing the language in the host country, learning a language offers new skills that will help your job search upon returning to the US.

“How will I find a job there?”

Workers turn down overseas assignments because of their spouse’s career more than any other reason. Fewer spouses find jobs overseas than they used to, according to Tanya Mohn in this New York Times article. They are deciding wisely. According to the same New York Times article, 10% fewer expat spouses can find work in 2011 than in 2006. As the world economy slows, the situation will not likely change soon.

Many families depend on the spouse’s career for a second income and giving purpose to the spouse. Companies need to recognize this—though they often do not. As reported on the Expatica blog, Lisa Johnson, Cendant‘s director of consulting services, says that low-level workers–not executives–need more help in job search assistance because they are more often dual-income families. In addition to lack of income, lack of career for the spouse lowers overall family quality of life.

The company must take the happiness of the family of the expatriot seriously. Many families that go through with an overseas assignment may suffer because of a lack of job prospects for the spouse, leaving the spouse unhappy. This thesis by Huynh Ronny et al about expatriot management notes that spousal unhappiness represents the most common reason for early termination of overseas assignments (p. 19). Such a change of heart costs the company dearly. Mohn writes in the New York Times that a failed relocation can cost $1 million. The cost of not providing support for the spouse potentially exceeds the cost of providing support by tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The language will let you network

One solution will allow you to network more effectively, whether for work, friendships, and other support systems. The company must provide for you to learn the local language early and seriously.

The spouse will need the language right away. Hyunh Ronny et al note in their research that the initial stage is most critical for training. Moreover, because the level of adjustment for the family is greater than for the worker, the family deserves a separate training module (pp. 19-20). The worker will be adjusting to his new work. His family will be adjusting to the new culture, including career networking.

Knowledge of the language helps the family confront multiple initial problems. Hyunh Ronny et al write that knowing the language gives the family access to local support structures–outside work and expat communities (p. 18). An article at CheeseWeb asserts that learning the language helps the spouse with the job search, integration into society, and day-to-day interactions

My experience has additional shown me that knowing the language will make you stand out in a positive way. When I visited Morocco, after one-and-a-half days, locals approached me to chat: “There’s the American who speaks Arabic!”  The language will get your foot in the door as someone who is smart, sympathetic, and unique. Language will open myriad channels for connection that will help with your career and personal life.

Beyond simply studying the languages, more serious study likely helps significantly. Researchers believe success of cultural training depends on level of rigor (ie, weeks-long field training). Nevertheless, individual businesses anecdotally find success with less rigor (p. 27.). Ultimately, more cultural awareness training keeps expats from thinking that the new culture is inferior to the expat’s (p. 28).

Gaining skills while overseas

So the above writers demonstrate how learning a language is essential in helping with the immediate problems of integrating into the host country and of finding a job, but they do not stress the importance of learning the language itself for your future job prospects. A language represents a concrete skill that you can put on future resumes. Moreover, learning a language improves communication skills even in the native language. You will gain the ability to see things from multiple points of view. This ability aids in most interpersonal interactions in any workplace. The language and added communication skills fill that dreaded hole in the resume. When you return, future employers will no longer see a gap in your record but an applicant with new hard and soft skills for job advancement.

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One thought on “Learning the Language Aids the Expat Spouse

  1. Pingback: What I learned about language-learning: 2012 « Loving Language

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