The Immigrant Insight: How important is language?

What does it mean to be an Immigrant? Only if you are one, you will really know. For most of us it is a challenging journey, even if you have landed well.

Like I like to put it, being an immigrant means to burn all your ships and leave everything behind, tempting the odds for a good outcome. It is like Journey’s song, Don’t Stop Believin, “some will win, some will lose, and some of us just sing the blues, but the movie never ends, it goes on and on and on and on…” You go somewhere to build a new life, and when you stay long enough, quitting is not really an option anymore. It takes everything you have, because if you hold back, you will probably not achieve the outcome you want or need.

Many of us will probably not achieve the fame and financial abundance of Rihanna, who was born and grew up in Barbados, or Elon Musk, who was born and raised in South Africa before moving to Canada and the US; there are no guarantees that the challenges ahead will be easy. For starters, the language is in many cases different than your own, and mastering it correctly can take years for some people, if they achieve it at all.

Being fluent in the language of the place you live in is key to determine your success. In order to integrate, you have to be able to communicate. Speaking English might not always be possible. Maybe you don’t even speak it at all, or not good enough, or the people around you are not willing or proficient enough to speak it with you. In the long run, investing in this necessity will be key to your success, and by success I don’t only mean acquiring financial independence, but also having a normal daily life.

Is it possible to have a normal life in a country where you don’t speak the language fluently? The honest answer to this question is no. Not really. Why? Because you need it for everything you do, from small interactions, like going to a shop and having to ask where the product you need might be because you can’t find it, or more significant interactions, like a doctor’s appointment, where it is very important to discuss medical issues without confusion on either side. If you don’t have any family around or somebody else who can help you, you will soon find out that the necessity to communicate will urge you to develop your language skills very quickly.

I found this to be true quite early in my immigration journey. I remember waiting at a public transport stop trying to figure out which tram number to take, when I decided to ask another woman, also waiting there, to help me. Her answer was, “learn to speak the language.” I had just arrived the month before.

This encounter became my fuel to become fluent as quickly as I could, even while enduring sometimes nasty understatements, criticism and condescending looks.

If you are not an immigrant, this is the reason why it is important to be aware that when someone is really trying to communicate (even if it is not perfect), you appreciate the effort and try to help. That way you will create positive encouragement for that people to move in the direction of improving their language skills, without the fear of rejection or judgement. And believe me when I say this: everyone benefits from that in the end.

Nina Abbott is a Chilean Translator, Editor and Writer who has lived in The Netherlands since 2001. An avid reader from a young age, Nina has always dreamed and created stories in her imagination. After finishing high school, she worked as a PA for many years. Her love for language led her to study translation and afterwards pursue her childhood dream of becoming a writer. This came to fruition with her collaboration in the recent publication of the first of three books from the Wounded Woman Series, Betrayed. With it, she hopes to inspire other women to follow their dreams. For more info, visit