It’s funny – I come from a very small village with just about 3,000 inhabitants somewhere at the very edge of the Austrian Alps, so you could kind of expect that having lived in 6 different countries and speaking six different languages (and counting) would be exceptional. However, I am by far not the only one – most people here speak at least two or three languages, everybody and their mother has at least done one semester abroad during university, and even moving to another country entirely is no big deal.
This changes completely whenever I travel, or, rather, meet a native English speaker. Their eyes tend to widen in wonder when I answer their question of “How many languages do you speak?“, often making me feel like an exotic animal that has only been heard of in legends, but never seen in real life. Of course, there are countless native English speakers who learn a foreign language, or even, in some cases, many of them (check out this British guy who has mastered 9 languages and is still going strong). It just seems to me like speaking several languages or navigating a country where you don’t understand a word of what people are saying to you is a bit more exceptional in the English speaking world than it is in the heart of Europe, where countries are so close together that there is no way you’ll get by without at least knowing the basics in a few other languages.
Since the next question is almost always “How does that work?”, I thought an article on the matter might make learning a new language in a far-away country a bit less frightening – so if you’re interested in learning a foreign language, moving to a country where you won’t understand anything, or even traveling to a foreign place and don’t want to rely solely on English, read on: This is what happens when you move or travel to a country where you really don’t understand anything.
You will quickly learn to use your hands and feet
If you can’t speak a single word of the local language, you’ll quickly start to use your hands and feet instead. Gesturing wildly in the air before you and enacting various situations and questions like you’re in the middle of an improv class will turn from being slightly unusual and, more often than not, a little embarrassing, to feeling completely natural.
Once, while hitchhiking through Georgia with a good friend, the driver stopped and invited us for lunch. He only spoke English, but my travel buddy could communicate in Russian, so everything was completely fine – until the moment she had to go pee. The situation ended with me imitating a wolf (including a very loud howling) in the middle of a restaurant to make the guy understand that I love hiking and look forward to the Georgian mountains, but am a little worried about the wolves. (It worked.)
You will learn to rely on the niceness and understanding of total strangers
If you travel somewhere you absolutely don’t speak the language, even more so when you actually move to the country, you will be reliant on the help of the people around you. While that might seem scary at first, it can actually be a very welcome change of perspective. I, for example, love to control everything around me, which is not possible at all when nobody understands you and the answers to your questions are always a long chain of unintelligible gibberish (that, admittedly, usually sounds very nice and intriguingly foreign, but still). I’ve learned how to just go with the flow, rely on the people around me, and be surprised by their niceness.
When I moved to Romania for a year after high school, I went there by train all the way from Austria. The trip included a stopover in a small train station somewhere in the middle of nowhere, so I got out of the train with my giant backpack and no language skills whatsoever. Besides the fact that ticket didn’t show what platform my train would be leaving from (and the platforms gave no indication as to what number they might be), my biggest problem was that I needed to pee. Badly.
There were a total of two old, funny-looking men and six stray dogs with me at the train station, and besides really having to relieve myself, I definitely didn’t want to leave my luggage, basically containing everything I owned, unattended. I took my Romanian language guide in hand, walked up to the men, and asked them for a toilet. They pointed me to a spot in a wall where I suppose once, a door had been. I made a sign over my luggage, and they responded with what I think meant “Don’t worry, girl, your luggage is safe with us as we are two completely reliable citizens. You have nothing to fear, just go pee.” So I went – and found a vile-smelling dump of holes in the ground, dirtied by some human excrement that had missed its intended destination. I walked back out, deciding that I could hold it.
When I came out, I was greeted with two big smiles, gradually turning into laughter. Finally, one of the men got up, went inside the train station, got the key to the employee’s bathroom, and showed me all the way to the door, all without saying a word. Plus, they really did guard my luggage well.
You will totally lose all fear of making mistakes
If you have studied a foreign language in school before, then you will probably be familiar with the wish to learn it correctly, without any mistakes. The fact that your errors are immediately corrected and greatly affect your grade doesn’t make this urge any smaller. When you move to another country and want to communicate with your new neighbors, though, all of this fear of mistakes completely vanishes. Instead, you will try to simply make people understand the very basic meaning of whatever you’re trying to communicate, correct grammar or not.
This will sometimes lead to embarrassing situations, mind you – but at least you’ll have some good anecdotes you can tell when you visit your friends back home. One of my favorites, by which I mean most excruciatingly embarrassing ones, is when I had a presentation at my host town’s city hall, mayor and other important people included, of the work I was doing as a volunteer in Romania. It was February, so my colleague and I had planned a “Week of Love” around Valentine’s Day in the local high school, which I proudly presented in front of a full room of government officials – only I said “Week of Making Love”. I didn’t realize my mistake until after, but it definitely made their reaction of bursting out in laughter more understandable.
You will find the exact right people to help you
Locals are usually very happy to meet someone who is making the effort to learn their language, and they will be more than happy to help you. Keep looking for them and don’t get discouraged by encounters and times where people just don’t slow down their speech, no matter how apparent it is that you are a total foreigner and don’t understand squat, look at you strangely, or get annoyed that you don’t understand, because this definitely will happen, too.
There was a time where I was convinced that “to hatch” meant “to lay eggs” in English. When I was traveling through Nicaragua with by best friend, and we had the opportunity to go turtle watching, we asked an Australian couple who had been on the turtle tour before whether it was worth it. It was the time of year where turtles come out of the sea, dig holes in the sand, and then lay their eggs – to which I consistently referred as “hatching”. Their amused faces and widened eyes did nothing to help correct my mistake. I did, however, find out about it much later and continue to feel slight embarrassment/anxiety (and annoyance at that Australian couple!) to this day.
This turtle is definitely not hatching.
However, for each and every one of these exhausting encounters, there will be at least three people along who are supportive and actually good for your learning process. Years after the Nicaraguan incident, I moved to France to attend university. Classes were held in French, which is definitely not my first language, so I was a bit worried that I might not be able to keep up. Luckily, I immediately made a dear friend in a guy who was not only constantly in a good mood, but also never tired of poking fun at my accent and pointing out my mistakes as soon as I made them. His friendly manner and jokes about my French were actually the most useful thing – without him, I never would have understood just where exactly my German accent was showing (plus, you know, millions of other little mistakes).
You will enjoy the benefits of total immersion
Whether you decide to move to another country entirely, or just spend a few weeks there, you will start to feel the benefits of total immersion right away. If everything you hear all day long is the foreign language, certain words and patterns will quickly become familiar to you, without even having to put in a lot of effort. In fact, you might just switch to the foreign language whenever you go back home in situations where quick, small answers are needed – it has happened to me more than once that I’ve said “merci” to the waiters in restaurants without even thinking about it after having spent two years in France.
The more remote regions you visit or choose for your adventure, the better this works. Usually, in capital cities you will find a large community of expats, and maybe even people who speak your own language. In bigger cities, locals will be able to communicate in English, as well, so the necessity to communicate in the foreign language will become smaller. If you move to the countryside, however, you will be completely immersed, oftentimes being the only person around who speaks a foreign language at all. I only learned Romanian as well as I did because I lived in a very tiny, rural community, where I was left with no choice but to try using the foreign language. International friends who lived in Bucharest, instead, had to work ten times harder to become fluent in the language – and often, didn’t learn it at all.
Languages will all start to blend into each other
Soon enough, you won’t be able to separate your mother tongue from the new language anymore. This effect is even more pronounced when you speak several languages, or learn a few of them at once! It will probably happen that you will want to express a very particular feeling, or thought, but it only comes to you in a different language. I frequently find myself googling words that I know in English, but can’t quite express in my native language, German, for example. Plus, there are tons of words that are characteristic for a certain language and just can’t be translated – “Heimat” in German, “depaysement” in French, or “hygge” in Danish are just some examples.
The mix-up of languages in your head can also lead to funny situations – I remember that I was on a hike in El Salvador, testing my Spanish with the local guide. It might be useful to point out that I didn’t really have any educational background in Spanish, but picked it up while traveling since it’s very similar to other Latin languages I already knew. I rambled on and on about hiking and that my favorite mountain was not “far” from my home town – until I realized that the word I was using, “departe“, was a direct translation from Romanian, very different from the word I should have been using, “lejos“. The poor guy probably had no idea what I meant!
You will build up the confidence to master any challenge
Most importantly, living in a country where you don’t speak the language at all, or even navigating one for a longer trip, will give you the courage and the confidence to face any challenge that you might encounter, be it language-related or not. Seeing that you can survive in a place where nobody understands what you are talking about, and realizing that learning new skills can be easier than you might initially think really boosts your morale.
It made me decide on going to school in France, without really speaking the language – three years later, my finished degree proves that it wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
What about you, have you learned a foreign language in another country? What were your experiences, and what did you learn? I’d love to hear in the comments!
*Photos via unsplash