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Seven Countries Where Pointing Will Only Get You So Far

Did you face a language barrier when you first moved abroad? The answer typically depends on where you’re from — and where you’re going. Because for some countries, getting by without local language skills can be tricky. Can you guess which?

As part of our annual Expat Insider survey, we asked expats to rate how easy it is to live in their respective countries of residence if someone doesn’t speak the local language. While some entries on the list were expected, others certainly surprised us! Read on to see if you guessed right.


Thought you could get by without speaking Portuguese in Brazil? Think again!

Close to three in five expats in Brazil (58%) agree that it’s difficult to live there without Portuguese, compared to the worldwide average of 32%. In fact, a quarter of respondents in Brazil give the language factor the worst possible rating on a scale of one to seven!

The good news? Brazilian Portuguese is not too difficult to learn. (Only the conjugations and pronunciation may take some getting used to.)


Japanese has a reputation for being challenging.

With complex grammar and — from a Western viewpoint — an unusual writing system that includes three different scripts, it’s hardly surprising that 70% of expats there find learning Japanese difficult. A third even say it’s very hard, more than twice the global average of 14%.

Consequently, more than half (54%) struggle with the language barrier, and less than one in four (22%) find that you can easily live in Japan without speaking Japanese (vs. 50% globally).

So, you better get started on those 2000+ hours of Japanese lessons …


Famously proud of their language, there’s the prevailing stereotype that the French refuse to speak anything but French. And like any stereotype, it’s an exaggeration.

But expats do report that it can be tricky to get by in France without speaking the local language. Close to three in five (59%) say as much. Luckily, an even higher share of 71% already speak French fairly (or even very) well.  

Similar to Portuguese, French is one of the more manageable languages to learn, especially if you’re familiar with other Romance languages. Just don’t let those silent letters trip you up.


Speaking of Romance languages: Italian is another handy one to learn.

Just 22% of survey respondents agree you can get by in Italy without it (vs. 50% globally), and 29% say they struggle with the language barrier.

Luckily, the majority (52%) considers Italian easy to learn (vs. 40% globally). Che bello!

United Kingdom

Now, there’s of course a certain inherent bias when it comes to an article and survey in English on the local language of a country where English is the dominant language.

In fact, in the UK, respondents were more than twice as likely to highlight the lack of a language barrier as an important factor when deciding on their new home (24% vs. 11% globally).

But if you don’t speak English, you won’t have the easiest time in the UK. Only about a quarter (24%) agree that you can get by without, compared to 50% of expats worldwide. And that’s not even taking local dialects into account …


Do you know the joke about the English boat and the German coastguard?

SOS, we’re sinking!

What are you thinking about?

But all jokes aside: two in five expats in Germany struggle with the language barrier, and half agree that it’s difficult to live there without speaking German (vs. 32% globally)!

Nor is learning German necessarily easy thanks to a complex case system and gendered nouns. So better keep practicing your der – die – das.


Colombia joins neighbor Brazil on the list with Spanish — another Romance language.

The bad news: less than a quarter (24%) find you can get by without speaking Spanish.

The good news: over two-thirds of expats in this South American country (69%) agree that Spanish is easy to learn (vs. 40% globally).

Consequently, an impressive 86% of our survey respondents in Colombia speak Spanish fairly well, including 29% for whom it’s their mother tongue.

Where It’s Easy to Be Understood

Nothing beats the immersive experience of living in a country where you speak the native tongue. But not everyone has an easy time picking up new languages.

If that’s you, you might want to take a closer look at the Middle East. Over three-quarters of expats in Bahrain, the UAE, Oman, and Qatar all agree that you can easily live there without speaking Arabic.

These countries are joined by Malaysia, the Philippines, and the Netherlands, where expats report a similar ease of getting by without local language skills.


If you'd like to learn more about how different countries (and cities) did, have a look at our Expat Insider survey results.

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