Fasten your seatbelt, you’re going abroad! But hold on, they speak a FOREIGN language! What to do!? Well, let me tell you what NOT to. The following are some lessons on how not to behave in a foreign country. For this post, I asked some of my friends (who moved to foreign countries without having learnt the language first) to share their stories about the language learning process they went through, as well as some funny experiences.
If you plan on living abroad and decide to wait with language learning until you arrive, you have taken the procrastination path. Deep down you know how this is going to unfold. The I’ll do it later mantra is a monster and it will chase you until you face it and kick it in the knuckle.
Do you know that scene from ‘The 13th Warrior’ where Ahmed was sitting around the fire with the Vikings, listening and observing carefully as they talk and laugh? He was slowly able to pick out words, then whole phrases, up to the moment when he suddenly spoke. For those unfamiliar with the film, here is the said scene.
Shocking news: this is not how you learn a language in real life, as a friend of mine discovered when moving abroad:
During my first evening with the locals, I enjoyed pretending to be Ahmed and trying to pick up the language the way he did… At first it was fun, but I quickly became bored with my little game. I was not even able to tell words apart. To me their ‘talk’ was like endless strings of alien sounds. And not just initially, this is how I felt for months. Except that I gradually lost my enthusiasm to understand them and started filtering their gibberish out.
It’s true that learning a language is best done where people speak it. But it does not mean this will happen with passive listening alone.
Once in a while we need to step out of the tourist zone and expect the unexpected.
I had an appointment at the city hall. Not knowing which office I needed to go to, I turned to the doorman.
“Do you speak English?” the old man asked.
“Yes!” I replied enthusiastically.
“I not!”, he giggled and went back to his desk.
Yes, many people worldwide speak English now and that is convenient. Yet, even more people do not (or prefer not to). Communication glitches are to be expected – more so, if you count on your English only. Who’s to blame for the lack of understanding: the locals who live there and mind their own business, or the lazy foreigner?
This is our favourite story and a valuable lesson to be learnt from it.
After a few months of living in a foreign country and not learning a single word, I developed two survival strategies: (1) avoid talking to strangers at all cost and (2) fake understanding when caught by surprise. Why? Short answer: to avoid embarrassment.
Once I was in a clinic and went to the restroom. A nice little lady popped out from one of the booths. She smiled, I smiled. Sadly, she spoke. I have no idea what she said. It sounded like a friendly enough comment… But what does one say to a stranger in the restroom anyway? I automatically used my second strategy: just mumbled “Yeah…”. This seemed to have startled her. And she carefully stepped out of the room. My response was obviously so inappropriate, that I became worried she’d come back for me with personnel from the psychiatric ward. So, I left promptly hoping not to meet her again.
When learning a language, we sometimes have to play the guessing game. You don’t want to constantly interrupt a conversation asking about every unfamiliar word. If you get the point, you can reply and move on. But, for someone who barely knows a few words, guessing is an awfully bad idea. More often than not, your guess would be wrong.
You’d be surprised to know how many people can spend decades in a foreign country without learning more than a few accidental phrases. They build separate communities and live solely inside them.
Even if you don’t go that far, you might instinctively use similar ‘bring home to feel home’ strategies. This would only bring isolation and nostalgia upon you.
Usually being aware of how you come across is important, but sometimes it’s better to invest more energy and focus on the outside world. If you are open and motivated to learn the language, living in a foreign country could be a pleasant and memorable experience. Or else, the only thing you bring home from there could be some lousy souvenirs and a handful of trivial pictures…
What is your experience with this? Any funny or valuable lessons to share? I’d love to hear your thoughts.