Updated: Jun 26, 2019
Most expats in Germany are happy in general. However, many of those rating happiness poorly say they are not having enough socializing opportunities with locals. Although most expats want to learn German, they find it hard to learn and struggle with learning the local language. In case you're one of those: Have you asked yourself why you want to learn German and did you set up your individual plan how and - realistically - until when to get there? Let's have a look how personal, smart goal setting can help you to overcome the language barrier and, thereby, to reduce stress and increase your health.
According to research, language barriers are associated with higher stress levels and can lead to poorer health. Although this affects everyone living abroad in general, considerably more expats experience the language barrier as a burden living in Germany than elsewhere: 59 % of the expats in Germany say it is largely difficult to live in the country without knowing the language compared to 39% of the expats worldwide. Not knowing the German language makes it hard to find local friends and creates a feeling of isolation for many expats.* Hence, it is worthwhile to follow up on your goal to learn German to increase your wellbeing.
"I will learn German"
is the intention most expats have. While it's a great start to have a positively expressed objective like this, it is not a precise one. This makes it hard to find the best strategies to get there and - most importantly - to keep your motivation up. Therefore, it is essential to know your own motivation - why did you want to learn German in the first place? Write down why learning the local language is attractive for you - what would be your benefits? Sell your goal to yourself - why should you bother learning German although you're working in an international environment or having access to an international community for example? What are you expecting from learning German? Maybe you think it might be easier to make German friends and to settle into the new environment, maybe you expect to have more confidence in handling things on your own without requiring help of others, etc.
When you've figured out your own motivation, break it down into a set of smaller, more manageable goals and set up a long-term plan.
To achieve your goals, it is important to define SMART ones:
Specific. Ask yourself the five-w questions (what, why, who, where, which (resources or limits): Do you want to learn German as a beginner to have a basic conversation at an informal sports event in July 2019 or do you want to learn German fast to meet the requirement of your new job role starting in August 2019 for example? Do you need the help of a German trainer or do you want to study by yourself? Where do you want to learn German - online or would you rather take a class near you? How much time and money do you want to and can spend on learning German?
Measurable (or meaningful). How will you know when you accomplished your goal? Maybe you are planning on taking official exams as your proof of German language proficiency, maybe you're planning on arranging doctor's appointments and ordering food in German at a certain point, etc.
Achievable (or attainable). How realistic is your goal based on other constraints? Consider your abilities and resources and ask yourself, whether your goal is realistic and attainable. If you want to learn German like a native within 6 months to take on a new medical job for example, you should consider your current level and the time and money you'd be able to invest in the next months: It might be challenging but realistic when you're already on an advanced level and you have the resources to study and practice several days a week on regular basis. It might not be attainable though when you've just started to learn German and your current job and private situation doesn't allow you to make room for a certain amount of time for language classes every week for example.
Relevant. Does it seem worthwhile to you? Is it the right time? Does it match other efforts/needs? For instance, when you're having a long distance relationship, your spouse doesn't speak German and you're considering moving to another country within the next year, would it be worthwhile for you to spend nearly all of your evenings and weekends studying to become fluent in German at the moment?
Time-bound. Define a target date - your individual deadline for specific achievements. What level of German will you have in a month? And in six months? A target date helps you to focus on your goal and to prioritize because you've defined something to work toward. Thereby, consider what your current level is - what can you say, which conversations can you follow? Based on this, set a realistic time-frame.
Review and update your plan on a regular basis and redefine your subgoals considering your progress and the current circumstances. Has something changed that's not under your control or, for example, are you struggling with the grammar more than you've expected? Don't let it pull you down, just make some adjustments to keep it attainable and reduce your stress level.
You've got what it takes, you just need to set a personal goal that is achievable for you and worthwhile to pursue!
Would you like to learn more about goal setting? Check out the workshop about mental strength and goal setting.
PS: Have you checked out my free expat meetup group yet?
*Literature: Ding, H., & Hargraves, L. (2009). Stress-associated poor health among adult immigrants with a language barrier in the United States. Journal of immigrant and minority health, 11(6), 446.
Internations (2018). Expat Insider 2018. The world through expat eyes (pdf).