Learning another language to the point of being self-sufficient in a country where that language is spoken can be one of the most rewarding — yet frustrating — challenges of life abroad. In my case, that second language is French, my husband’s native tongue. The learning curve can be steep depending on where you’re starting.
Frustrations of living in another language
For the record, my husband’s English has always been better than my French and will always be. From early in our relationship, we fell into the habit of speaking English more often than French and at this point, Tom’s English is extremely fluent and near perfect despite never having lived in an English-speaking country. Although he was just talking to me about a guin-ay-uh-upigg and it took me a few minutes to realize he was mispronouncing guinea pig. 🙂
Anyway, when you live in the country where your second (or 3rd or 4th) language is spoken, it becomes a real necessity to up your level to a point where you can take care of day-to-day interactions without any issues. And if you live outside of a major city? That need becomes even more important because people don’t generally speak any English.
So us foreigners slave away, practicing our pronunciation and conjugations and comprehension skills… making mistakes and fools out of ourselves along the way. Some days are successes and others feel like major failures. But with time, we get to a point where we’re OK with our level and we know how far we’ve come. But even if you become pretty fluent in that other language, it can still be majorly frustrating.
Here’s why it can be frustrating when you’re living in another language:
Your true personality doesn’t come through
After living in a new place and communicating in a new language, it’s easy to feel like people aren’t getting to know the “real” you. Maybe you’re more reserved and quiet in your second language. You observe more than talk. In English, I’m rather outgoing and happy to make conversation with anyone. I have an irreverent sense of humor at times, am quick with comebacks, and if you step out of line, I have no problem telling you as much. But in French? I’m a polite pushover who smiles a little too much and goes overboard on the social niceties. In French, I feel like I overcompensate a bit for my “otherness.” People know I’m not French so I do my best to do everything right. Speak properly, order food properly and greet people with those dreaded bises. Is it the real me? Yes and no. Luckily, since Tom’s English was so good when we met, he got to know the real me from Day 1, but I can’t help but think his parents see a more frazzled, shorter-fused and less intelligent version of who I really am.
Your sense of humor changes
Our sense of humor can change as we go through life and experience different things and places. Living abroad will do that to you. Little things that might have upset me back in New York make me laugh now. I crack jokes to myself when the post office is closed for no reason or why someone just can’t take care of a simple request for me. I laugh at things that aren’t supposed to be funny. But I did that at home too, so maybe my sense of humor hasn’t shifted THAT much. Something that I’ve found to be true is that I’m hesitant to make jokes so I make them less often. Will the humor translate? Will I offend someone? Different cultures don’t always find the same things funny.
You’re automatically pegged as a foreigner
Unless you’re a language genius or learned the language very young, you probably have some sort of accent in your other language. People will notice this from the minute you open your mouth and sometimes it’s a good thing and other times you’ll feel like an outcast. I know I’ll always have an accent in French even though I’ve come a long way, so now I just embrace it. A good day for me is when someone thinks I’m from Germany, Belgium or Quebec! The little wins, guys. 😉
You are slow
Or at least you feel like you are. At times when people are always rushing around and busier than ever, being slow is the last thing you want to be. But it gets better with time and practice. What do I mean by “slow?” Sometimes you get the joke a few seconds after everyone else or you take a little longer to comprehend what’s going on. The ease of conversation doesn’t come as naturally either and maybe you search for words or ways to say exactly what you want to say. Your speech is often at a slower pace than a native speaker’s. Sometimes it feels like you’re trying to verbally pull yourself through molasses. Another way I feel kind of slow is that I’m not quick-witted in French like I am in English. In my sales job after college in NYC, I could overcome a client’s objections without missing a beat. I always knew what to say when and had comebacks galore. But in French, it’s not the same and when a quick-witted person feels like she’s lost her wit? Not. Fun.
You get easily overwhelmed/stressed/ready to give up
Any life stresses are magnified when you add in language difficulties. Technical conversations with words you don’t know, speaking to someone else with a heavy accent, and following a convo with multiple people in a loud environment can all feel like too much especially on top of an already stressful day. Sometimes I’ll be mad that I didn’t understand something that was said to me, feel stressed about it for hours after and then snap at Tom — totally not his fault. I know I have a tendency to be sensitive and hard on myself, so the stress of communicating in a language that’s not your own just makes this worse. But every day gets better and it’s so important to reflect on the little strides you’ve made along the way.
You can’t be as precise as you’d like
At times, a word or phrase in your native language just doesn’t translate. You want to say something specific and the language at your disposal just can’t hit home the point you way you want. This is especially true when you’re talking about emotions, but luckily for me Tom speaks English as I mentioned so it hasn’t been a problem for us. Emotions matter the most when you’re talking to your spouse and as long as he understands, we’re good. But in relationships where the second language is spoken all the time, I can see how frustrating it can become when you can’t be as specific as you’d like. In France, the word “care” is difficult to translate. You can come up with something that expresses the same sentiment but “care” doesn’t exist.
Not being 100% confident
Tom chimed in with this one. Even if you’re great in a foreign language, it’s hard to know if you caught everything that was said. Lingering doubt makes you second-guess what you heard and if there’s background noise or multiple people talking, it’s hard to be sure that you absolutely understood what was being said. Tom explained that while he understands mostly everything, he’ll doubt himself sometimes and wonder if he got everything. Even though I reassure him, it takes time to build up your own confidence.
What about you? What are some of your frustrations of living in another language?