One of the highlights of my life was the nearly three years that I spent in Vienna, Austria. I was there to attend an LL.M. course in international tax law at the Wirtschaftsuniversität, the Vienna University of Economics and Business.
While living in Vienna, I did my best to integrate myself into the local culture. Needless to say, it was easier said than done.
The biggest issue, not surprisingly, was language. While students in Austria must take several years of English classes to graduate from high school, the official language, after all, is German. And outside the tourist district – and the classroom – that’s about the only language you hear, other than a smattering of English, French, Russian, and even Arabic.
To ease my acclamation into Austria, I took two years of German in the US before I left. But after arriving in Vienna, I discovered that the German spoken there was far different from the Hochdeustch (standard German) I had learned in school. But I persisted when I had the opportunity, and my language skills gradually improved. Now that I’m back in the US, I find that – sadly – I’ve forgotten much of what I learned. (But I can still order a beer – ein Pfiff, bitte – in the local dialect. Some things you never forget!)
In contrast, other English-speaking expats I met in Vienna spent time only with other English speakers and didn't learn a word of German. They inevitably complained about how hard it was to adjust to life in Austria. The more successful ones threw themselves into the culture, learned German, and settled into life in another country. Since the classes I was taking were in English, I followed more of a middle path. I spoke English during the day, answered emails in English, and dealt with clients in English. So I didn’t have a great deal of free time to practice German. And almost every time I did, the Austrian person with whom I was conversing would lapse into passable-to-near-perfect English.
In 2005, my last year in Vienna, Austria amended its immigration laws, making it much more difficult to acquire legal residence. About the only realistic way I had to acquire residence without a big cash outlay was to qualify as a Künstler – an artist. As a writer, I could possibly qualify on that basis. But there were no guarantees, and I had serious doubts that my writings on asset protection, tax reduction strategies, and the like would qualify as Kunst (art). I also didn’t think I could pass the German language examination required to fulfill the Integration Agreement new residents of Austria must sign. In the end, I opted to come back to the US.
Integrating into a foreign country is about becoming comfortable with its culture, its institutions, its idiosyncrasies, and above all, its language. There’s nothing more important than mastering the local language – or dialect. And the more familiar you are with it, and the more you speak it, the more comfortable you’ll be when you relocate there. Yes, it takes time, dedication, practice, and the determination to allow yourself to make mistakes (and you’ll make plenty if you’re a new speaker).
For a middle-aged or older person who has never spoken another language, learning a new one will probably be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done. But it is possible if you force yourself to practice daily, allow yourself to make mistakes, and insist on speaking the local language as best you can with the local residents.
And if you can’t, don’t want, or don’t have the time to learn a second language? You can certainly shut yourself up in a gated community populated by other expats and speak only English in your adopted country. I’ve visited plenty of compounds like that in my travels. But that completely misses the point of moving to another country, because to experience the culture, you must also experience the language. There’s simply no substitute.
A better idea may be to focus on English-speaking expat destinations. Belize is probably the easiest to get residence in, but it’s not particularly difficult to qualify for residence in most English-speaking Caribbean countries.
It’s also relatively easy (albeit through a sometimes poorly defined process) to acquire legal residence in Ireland on a retirement visa. If you can demonstrate sufficient assets and income to live comfortably in Ireland without working, you will be issued with an Immigration Certificate of Registration.
To qualify for residence in the UK, Australia, Canada, or New Zealand without family ties there, though, requires either an outstanding skill set in demand to local employers or a six-figure or larger sum you’re prepared to invest in the country.
Take it from one who’s been there. If you're going to make the move offshore to a non-English speaking country, commit yourself to learning the local language. Now wouldn't be a bad time to start if you're serious about it. If not, stick to English-speaking expat destinations.