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I moved to a new country last year for the end of my studies. The local language is English, which I can read, write, speak and understand without too much effort... at work. I have absolutely no problem in professional contexts, or in a small group conversation with 3-4 people.

On the other hand, things get really, really tricky in social contexts. If I hang out with colleagues/friends in a bar, or a dinner for example, I can understand maybe 10-20% of any given conversation because of music, background noise, people speaking really fast, slang words etc (try leaving out four words out of five in a sentence, you'll see that jokes get significantly less funny!). This leaves me completely isolated and I usually leave after one hour, spent asking people to repeat sentences over and over again, and smiling awkwardly.

How to make the best of a social gathering (meet people, enjoy yourself...) when you have absolutely no clue what people are talking about?

nb. I hardly meet new people in other contexts, like sports, being physically limited for unrelated reasons - so, no football match after work for me :)

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TL;DR
I would advise that you simply jump off in the deep end, try to make a connection with people just like how you would back home. Don't avoid socializing just because you may encounter a language barrier. Instead, engage people socially without expecting barriers, and when you do run into a barrier, ask your conversational partner for help overcoming it.
This will teach you a tremendous amount of local culture and language, simply by going out and experiencing it.

At all costs, avoid the bad habit of not learning something because asking for explanation/repetition may be awkward. It's better to be very awkward once and then learn from it, than it is to be slightly awkward all the time.


I'm in a similar boat here. While I'm currently living in my home country with my foreign (English speaking) SO, we are going to move to her home region soon. I've already noticed the same obstacles when we took a holiday there. While I can handle normal conversation, I struggle with casual conversations as they tend to rely on local cultural catchphrases and references.

This situation is not too different from a child who can mostly grasp the language but doesn't speak/master it yet. The only way they improve is to observe.

You're going to have to take a similar approach: observe people, learn the appropriate cultural responses/phrases, ... You can ask for more explanation if you don't get a joke or reference. I would assume that your friend circle is accomodating to your inexperience with they culture/informal language.


I can understand maybe 10-20% of any given conversation because of music, background noise

I struggle with this too but it's not related to language, I'm just really bad at focusing on one sound when I can hear many. There's little you can do here except either learn to avoid situations where you can't hear people (I don't go to dancings for that reason) or do your best to learn how to cope with it.


I can understand maybe 10-20% of any given conversation because of people speaking really fast

This is something you pick up over time. For example, French (not my mother tongue) is a really fast spoken language. However, when we learned French in school, we weren't introduced to the speed because we were focusing on the words and their translation.

The only way I've learned to speak French at speed is to hearing it being spoken. Either though music, tv, movies, or observing people's conversations. There is no other way to learn this, it'll happen through exposure. Be patient.

When people speak too fast to you, ask them if they can repeat it more slowly. You can explain that you're still getting used to the language.


I can understand maybe 10-20% of any given conversation because of slang words etc (try leaving out four words out of five in a sentence, you'll see that jokes get significantly less funny!)

I've struggled with this too. For example, my brother-in-law once said "gizzageez" (that's how I heard it phonetically). I had no clue what that means, so I asked and he explain that he was saying "give us a guise" which is a more slang version of "give me/us a look at that".
Since then, I've heard the same thing at least 10 times in other social situations and suddenly things made a lot more sense.

You will encounter many of these cultural idioms or bastardizations, and the way you will learn them is the same way how the native speakers learned them: by hearing other people use them and figuring out what it means. The only difference is that native speaker have had more exposure to the language in their youth, at a time where not knowing something was less cause for embarassment than when you are an adult.

However, as an adult who is still learning the ropes; it's imperative that you accept that you are lagging behind and need to catch up. This includes admitting to people that you don't understand something they've said and asking them to repeat or explain it.

Having dealt with multiculturalism (both on the native and foreign side), most people are very accommodating to a foreigner who makes an effort to learn the native language. There are always a few people who will get annoyed, but that's not your fault. You will see that most people don't mind explaining something. On a personal note, I really like explaining things in my native languag to my SO because it gets me to re-evaluate and appreciate the peculiarities or weird figures of speech of my own language.


This leaves me completely isolated and I usually leave after one hour, spent asking people to repeat sentences over and over again, and smiling awkwardly.

Here's my approach:

  • When I'm not part of the conversation, I observe and try to make out what I can. If I'm really stumped, I might ask for clarification, but I'll generally not interfere with their conversation.
  • When I'm in a conversation with someone; my accent will usually be enough of a sign to them that they need to speak more clearly. If they missed that part, having asked them to repeat themselves once or twice usually has the same effect.
  • Ask for clarification. Don't be afraid to ask, people will generally be understanding, especially in a casual social context.
  • As much as it will feel awkward, do not "smile and nod" after you've asked someone to repeat themselves and you still haven't understood them. Your foreign nature is a plus here: it gives you a reason to ask again, and apologize that you're not understanding them. Don't create the bad habit of avoiding learning because it might be awkward.
  • Submerge yourself in English-speaking media, preferably local (e.g. Australian, South African, English, Scottish, ...). Try to disable subtitles when possible.
  • With close friends, try to use cultural idioms and figures of speech even if you feel unexperienced doing so. They can correct you if you've said it wrong or in a wrong situation. But the important thing is that you try it, because experience is what teaches you. If you hold off on doing it because you might make a mistake, you will never learn it.

How to make the best of a social gathering (meet people, enjoy yourself...) when you have absolutely no clue what people are talking about?

I'm really bad at casual chatting even in my own language. I never know what to say.

However, I do find that when around people in another culture, I generally don't need to find a topic. Most people will be interested in hearing about my culture/language/experiences in their country. Even if people didn't know this about me before I opened my mouth, my accent pretty much immediately gives it away and it becomes a lightning rod for topics of conversation.

So I would advise that you simply jump off in the deep end, try to make a connection with people just like how you would back home. Don't avoid socializing just because you may encounter a language barrier. Instead, engage them socially without expecting barriers, and when you do run into a barrier, ask your conversational partner for help overcoming it.
This will teach you a tremendous amount of local culture and language, simply by going out and experiencing it.

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