Monday, March 3, 2014

Expat Experiences: The Unexpected Challenge of Foreign Languages

I am very happy that Molly of The Move to America has brought the Expat Experience link-up back in March. I really enjoyed taking part in it in January - you can read the previous posts here, here, here and here. I found it challenging to write a post given a prompt and thought it was a great idea to put some advice together which might help present and future expats in similar situations. And I have to say that it was also incredibly good for me, as putting things down to paper (or blog) really helped me to identify my own feelings and understand better what I was going through.

The topic for today is 'The Unexpected Challenge' and without further ado, here's my story about one of the most challenging parts of moving abroad - the immersion in a foreign language.

The Move to America

I have always been good at languages. When I was at school my favourite subjects were always English and Maths and I excelled at both (funny that I was good at two such different things and I sucked at Physics, which in the end is only applied maths, and Spanish, my mother tongue). By the time I finished high school I had also studied French and German with outstanding grades as well. I really enjoyed learning and speaking foreign languages but it was something I only did within the four walls of my classroom, a truly confortable environment. It wasn't until I moved abroad for the first time - for my study exchange year - that I faced the real world. The real foreign world, that's it, one where everything was written and said in a foreign language. And in my case, that was a foreign language I didn't know at all.

Before moving to Antwerp I already knew that I would have to learn to speak Dutch because all my courses would be given in Dutch. It was a daunting task but it didn't really bother me, I was actually looking forward to it. I took a three-week intensive Dutch course upon arrival and I took two other courses throughout the academic year and by the end of my stay in Antwerp I could speak quite correctly and understand quite a lot from magazines and books. Understanding people talking was harder but I could manage to follow a conversation, at least in Antwerp. Mind you, one of the problems when learning Dutch is the myriad of dialects, it's like every city has a different dialect with a different pronunciation. As soon as I was outside Antwerp, I was totally lost and hopping over the border to the Netherlands was a real nightmare. I couldn't get a single word right!

Anyway, I never worried too much about understanding any Dutch outside Antwerp. I had learnt Dutch just for fun and it was highly unlikely that I would need it again after returning to Tenerife. But was I wrong! Life can be wicked sometimes and four years later I moved to the Netherlands and there I was with my excellent Dutch grammar but unable to do any small talk with the Dutch. I had to practise a lot to be able to say more than two sentences together and it took months, almost a year, to actually be able to understand everything I was told and whatever was talked on the tv. The worst part was when I started working, barely three weeks after moving to Maastricht, and I realised that most of the time I didn't understand what I had to do. Things improved slowly and in the end, all my efforts paid off and after a year fully immersed in the Dutch daily life I could call myself fluent in Dutch. 

That was my Dutch happy ending, I guess. Here are some things I learnt from my journey navigating the weird vocabulary and impossible sounds of the Dutch.

Don't be shy and talk - everyone makes mistakes and no one will expect you to do perfect. 

Mix with the locals - having friends who don't speak your native language will help you to try harder and learn. A lot.

Ask your questions - it is always better to ask a question, even twice or thrice, and be sure about what you're being told than shutting your mouth and wonder what's really going on.

Goede reis - i.e. Dutch for 'Have a good journey!'

Have a lovely week!

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  1. Wow, I'm impressed with your language skills being fluent in so many must be wonderful. Great advice and you are so right especially about asking questions

  2. Pero cuántos idiomas hablas, Irene? a mí tmb me gustan los idiomas pero las mates..uff, son mi cruz,ejejej. Me gustan tus consejillos para hablar una lengua. Bss:)

    1. jeje pues no muchos más! Hablar, hablar en realidad sólo hablo inglés, holandés y alemán. Francés lo entiendo bastante bien pero como nunca lo he tenido que utilizar pues no estoy acostumbrada y además lo tengo bastante olvidado.
      Me alegro de que te parecieran útiles los consejos :)

  3. Irene, you are brilliant to me! Some people can barely learn 2 languages and you know so many. They always told me practice makes perfect. Living where others speak another dialect is an excellent way to learn. I applaud you and thanks for sharing your story on learning Dutch. So awesome.

    1. Thanks, Kim! I'm blushing hehe
      I think I have always found it fun and challenging to learn foreign languagues and I've kept going all my life. I could have stopped it after high school but to me is just like a ny other hobby - though it can take a LOT of time!

  4. Great post, Irene. I think I already mentioned it before but I'm happy to say it again that I admire you for speaking many languages. I'll follow your advice about not being too shy. I end up not contributing much in conversations when I'm at my husband's country for fear of making mistakes and sounding ridiculous. :)

    1. hehe yep, I think you've told me before a couple of times :) Thank you, anyway :)
      I'm actually the same, especially when it comes to group conversations. I'm very shy and if I'm not 100% of what's going on and I really know how to say what I want to say, I won't talk at all. I feel more confident on one-on-one conversations but life can't be comfortable all the time!

  5. You really are a foreign language pro! I can't believe you learn languages so easily. I am sure it would take me a lot longer. :) And I agree, it is definitely helpful to hang out with locals as much as possible because that makes learning another language a lot easier.

    1. hehe thank you! I think I used to be a lot better at learning languages than I am now ... I'm probably getting old :) But true, I have notices that now I need a lot more time to learn vocabulary, thoughI pick au grammar quite easily. I think it is true that the more foreign languages you know, the easier it is to learn new ones, as your brain have more data to make comparisons and facilitate the learning process hehe


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