17 April 2014

5 Things You Don't Understand About Language Learning Until You're a Foreigner

When we live in one place (or one country) it's easy to hold certain ideas about what it means to live in that country. Many of these assumptions are based on being able to speak the official/common language of a land/region. As expats/refugees/immigrants/etc. try to make their way in a new country they face many challenges that revolve around language; and they're sometimes met with scorn, condescension, discrimination, or pity. When you're the native in the land it's easy not to think about what language means for that person or what's really happening in order for them to communicate in a different language.

While it's pretty easy to come to the Netherlands as a native English speaker with so many Dutch people speaking excellent English, it doesn't mean we've been entirely isolated from language-related challenges. I always knew that learning a language isn't a simple process but I never fully understood just how difficult it can be until moving here and trying to learn Dutch. There are situations and ideas that you never face in high school or college language classes because it's not just a matter of "getting by" or "passing the test." I have heaps of respect for people that don't have the advantage of living in a country where so many natives speak their own language and are making their way on a more difficult path. After thinking about this idea of language for some time, here is my list of 5 things you don't understand about language learning until you're a foreigner.




1. When You Start Learning, You Start from the Beginning

You are literally starting over when you learn a new language. I know this is an obvious statement, but when you're already fluent and capable of every type expression in one language, it's sometimes frustrating to find that you don't have the words for commonly used nouns, verbs, and adjectives for basic communication. Every word is new, and needs to find a new place in your brain to remain and be easily recalled. You may have a few lucky moments when the words are the same or very similar between your native and learned language, but mostly you're starting from scratch. And that's daunting when you really stop and thing about it.


2. It's Not Just Vocabulary

"Word for word translation" rarely works. Some words have no equivalents across languages. The word order of a sentence is different between languages. Sometimes you have a bad translation. Sometimes your translation is correct, but there is some nuance that isn't explained in a translation. And everything carries a cultural context, whether it's immediately evident or not. You don't just "learn" a language, you have to "experience" a language - and that doesn't happen in just a few weeks.


3. Processing Ideas Takes Longer

When you want to express an idea, you constantly search for the right words. When you do have the word, you have to seriously think about how to put those words in the correct order and account for all grammatical rules. When someone is speaking to you or you read something, you find yourself first defining each word and then constructing the meaning based on the word combinations and word order. I often find that writing a 2 sentence e-mail in Dutch takes me 3-5 times longer than it would in English. It takes a while for some things to become automatic, and even then it's easy to slip up if you're stressed, tired, sick, etc.


4. You Feel Vulnerable

Two weeks ago, I had to call 112 (emergency services). While cycling along a busy bike path with Little Man, I noticed a mobility scooter overturned in a ditch with an elderly man still in it. I didn't see him go down and I have no idea how long he was there, but I was the first person to stop. I'm glad the woman behind me also saw him at the same time. She went to him while I started the call.

When we're emotionally strained (whether it be nervousness, anger, or even happiness), our brains default to our first language. This started happening to me on the phone with emergency services. I was sputtering through the basics of the beginning of the call before I thrust my phone at another person that stopped to help and stuttered out, "Ik spreek Engels. I kan niet," ("I speak English. I can't") as I pointed at the phone. She took the phone and explained the situation to the dispatcher and gave directions for the ambulance. The ambulance and police came and helped the elderly man, who seemed to be doing pretty well considering what happened.

In the back of my head, I fear a real emergency because of my language skills. Again, we're lucky that someone will more than likely speak excellent English, but I don't like relying on that, just in case I really do need to power through and work harder than normal to keep my brain on track.


5. You Feel (or are Made to Feel) Stupid

If you can't understand or respond to basic questions, you feel stupid. That's feeling deepens when you can tell someone is making a snide comment but you can't quite understand what they're saying or make a retort. When you keep struggling to make certain sounds that don't come naturally to you and people look at you with confusion. Or you just finish saying something and the person starts speaking loudly back to you, as if the volume of the conversation was the issue. Sometimes the feeling of stupidity stems from your own embarrassment of not having as good an understanding of the language you're trying to learn. Sometimes it stems from the unintentional or intentional reactions of others.


I bring up all these points today because it's easy to feel smug about our native language proficiency and make assumptions about non-native speakers. Even the most well-meaning person can find themselves forgetting how challenging it is to learn a new language. As the globe continues to become ever more interconnected, we need to keep in mind that picking up another language isn't easy and a variety of factors go into whether or not someone is or feels successful picking up a new language. Now that I'm actually doing it myself, I'm even more aware of these feelings, and hope that my previous moments judging non-native speakers were few and mild.

On a similar note, Amanda at Expat Life with a Double Buggy recently did an excellent post about constantly communicating in a different language other than your native tongue. It's well worth the read.

Have you tried learning a new language or lived as a foreign speaker? Were there things about language learning you didn't really appreciate until living in a different country?



Expat Life with a Double Buggy

Seychelles Mama

21 comments:

  1. I found myself nodding at all of this! I definitely do feel more vulnerable here than I would back in Canada under the same circumstances (at the grocery store, on a busy street, anywhere really). And I totally agree with your last point - I haven't really had anyone make me feel stupid, I think that was all self-inflicted, but I do sometimes get really upset when I hear people making fun of other people's accents. It's not exactly encouraging!! For example, I was on a train across from an older couple and they kept laughing at and mimicking the accent of the conductor who was speaking over the intercom. It was so rude!! I blatantly got up in the middle of the train and went to sit as far away from them as possible.

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  2. The times I've felt stupid have also mostly been self-inflicted, though there have been a few small incidents here and there - but I'm glad to see that you relate! Making fun of the accents drives me up a wall, though. I'd like to remind those people that they probably have an accent, too.

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  3. What a great post. I also have a huge fear of having to call 112 and have gone over and over in my head what I would do. The other one I have is that something will happen to Fredrik while he is at school and someone will need to call me and the communication will not be good and I will be left in the dark.

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  4. I'm a foreigner in Singapore so I have to agree with this list! I know 4 languages/dialects already but when I came here I found it hard to learn another new language, so I just didn't. Luckily a lot of people speak English here so there is no need.

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  5. A great post. I have such a fear of calling anyone at all in Dutch - I practice what I'm going to say but then I freak out about understanding their answers. I feel as I'm forever in that situation where I'll start a conversation in Dutch, only for them to eventually slip into English. And I have had someone make me feel stupid, at a party - I'd never met him before, but he laughed at my pronunciation of 'dank je wel' (after two years being here, I knew I said it pretty well by then!). Nobody else stood up for me, and it was horrible. Didn't help me with my confidence issues whatsoever!

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  6. Thanks! I hope I don't have to call 112 again, and I know exactly what you mean.

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  7. Ha, I think after already picking up 4 you should be allowed to be exempt from learning another - I'm very impressed! It's good that you're also in a position to be able to use English.

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  8. I know what you mean about starting in Dutch and falling into the English. I try hard not to let it happen, but too many times I out myself and they just switch to English.
    And how obnoxious of that guy at the party! Those kinds of things really irritate me beyond expression. Hopefully it hasn't happened since!

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  9. Yes! There is nothing like having your vocabulary reduced to that of a caveman/toddler to make you feel stupid! I had to go to a doctor in Sweden a few months ago with strep throat, and the misery of pointing at various body parts and croaking "ont" (pain) was pretty rotten!

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  10. Oh, well said! Having to deal with anything medical is especially frustrating. Thanks for stopping by!

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  11. I actually told a woman last week that, in English, I really am smart. On the flip side, I know expats who have been here in Costa Rica for years and years and they have not had the respect for their adoptive home to even begin to learn the language. Not cool...

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    1. There is definitely that negative part of the other side. English speakers especially have a tendency to think, "well, plenty of other people speak English" and make no effort to learn the other languages. Great point!

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  12. It can definitely be frustrating to learn a language. I'm trying to learn french right now and I find it very frustrating, particularly as you mentioned how word to word translation just doesn't work (of course it doesn't!!) I do not have a natural flair for languages and my grammar is not fantastic in English so you can imagine my struggle in french!
    I think that being made to feel stupid is definitely the biggest knock to anyone's confidence when learning a language.....speaking a language that is not your own is putting yourself out there, making yourself vulnerable and to be made to feel stupid for making an effort is so awful :(

    Really enjoyed reading this thank you for sharing with #myexpatfamily

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    1. It's so hard to pick up another language. My Dutch is significantly better than it was when I wrote this post, but I still have days where all of these things still apply. It does get easier, but it takes time - Good luck with your French!

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  14. Great post, and I can definitely relate on the last point. Even though I was fluent in English when I moved to Ireland, I made a lot of mistakes. The worst part is when people let you say things that are wrong, and you spend years making the same mistakes, until someone, 10 years after tells you you've been saying it wrong all along!! I definitely felt stupid that day!! #expatlifelinky

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    1. Oh, I completely agree! I'm lucky to have a good friend that speaks with me in Dutch and corrects me as I speak. Otherwise it can be so frustrating. I still vividly remember being irritated in 2nd grade of school when I was finally corrected after spelling "they" as "thay" the whole time in 1st grade. That feeling is only intensified as an adult making mistakes!

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  15. Great list, and having moved three times to a country where I didn't speak the language well (you'd think I'd learn, right...) I agree with all of them! My own personal worry is also greatest when it comes to emergencies. I can deal with the bruised ego that comes with sounding like a 3-year-old or not getting a joke, but not being able to express yourself in an emergency is just horrible. Still, after over four years in Italy I've realised that, on a day-to-day non-emergency basis at least, it's okay to make mistakes, and that realisation is kind of liberating in itself.

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    1. The chance of emergencies still worries me. My English can shut down when I'm extremely stressed, so I know the Dutch will too. But you're right about being comfortable in making mistakes in day to day stuff - knowing that you don't have to get it 100% right all the time is calming.

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  16. Yes! So true. The worst thing is that here in France, sometimes we can't even understand their English or they can't understand our kiwi accent.

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    1. Oh geez! That's got to lead to a ton of confusion! The accents really can be so frustrating - I have a hard time with the "harder" sound of Dutch in the Northern parts of the country. And for such a small country, there are a ridiculous number of regional dialects and accents!

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