Have you thought about moving abroad? What if you move somewhere where you don’t speak the language well? This reality has inspired me to write a little about little in Leipzig, Germany as a non-native speaker.
1. You often feel that people think you are an idiot when you do not understand them or cannot communicate well and you have sympathy for migrants in your home country. Everyday transactions like talking to a neighbour, chatting to a shop assistant or minding someone else’s package (common in apartments here if your neighbour is not home) can be fraught with embarrassing opportunities to look stupid and potentially offend someone!
2. Phone calls are a nightmare. It is extremely difficult to talk to people on the phone in another language when they speak at normal speed and use words you are not familiar with and you cannot see the other person to pick up cues. Sometimes you understand most of the words but not all. Sometimes there are cultural differences you are not aware of. Today I rang a veterinary clinic and was asking for an appointment to see a vet with Mr Pablo after 12pm but the receptionist was saying ‘you could come in from 10am-12pm or 3pm-5pm’. We don’t really have drop in vets in Australia besides emergencies so I kept saying ‘Ja, das is clar, Ich mochte termin nach drei” (Yes that is clear but I would like an appointment after 3pm)cringe
. It took a while but eventually we got there, but my face was red with embarrassment despite being on the phone.
- That said, you will embarrass yourself often in public due to the language barrier. Going to the post office and bank are particularly challenging and embarrassing experience when you do not speak the language and the staff speak no English. A lot of people use Berlin as a yardstick for Deutschland, which is extremely inaccurate. Where we live in East Germany, older people are more likely to speak Russian and public service staff were often in the same role pre-reunification and then simply rehired with no option or cause to learn/speak English. Therefore some people at train stations, ticket inspectors on trams, people at information booths often do not speak English. Embarrassing yourself in front of others is a daily occurrence that you simply have to accept as you try harder. The only alternative is to never leave the house, live in a bubble of expats (I have met people who have lived here for several years and never learnt Deutsch) or go home. As my friend said, you will try and fail often.
2. It’s really hard and frustrating being misunderstood especially if you are used to being a highly competent communicator. I used to teach workshops and run events for a living and was a sought after public speaker (if I do say so myself). I now struggle to string a sentence together beyond the basic conversational chatter despite four months of lessons 5 mornings a week.
3. You’ll buy mystery ingredients whilst shopping due to your inability to translate them quickly and easily. Chris bought Meerrettich (horseradish) thinking it was breakfast spread and I bought Kurkuma (turmeric) thinking it was cumin.
4. You will end up with a massive amount of change in your wallet until you are able to quickly and identify the coins- and understand the verbal currency
5. Whilst you have some wonderful local friends that you love dearly, most of your friends will be expats. No surprises here, it is easiest to communicate with those who speak your language. This is also because when you are learning a language each day rather than simply working all day you become friends with others who are also learning the language.
6. The problem with being friends with expats is that they are by nature a transient lot. You will make friends that you love dearly and they will leave.
7. You will be completely floored and humbled by the kindness of fellow human beings. I’ve written before about the problems with Mr Pablo’s trip to Deutschland
and the kindness of a Turkish taxi driver. People who live in Deutschland are by nature an extremely kind lot, even when communication is difficult I always find people try their best to help and appreciate your efforts when you are trying but failing.
* By another country, I mean one where you have not lived before and know very few people. My experience is of course moving to Germany from Australia. By new language, I mean a language you do not know rather than a language that has suddenly been created!
This post does not suggest that I expect or want everyone to speak English (of course not) it is more about challenges and occurrences that you may not consider before you leave your home country. You should certainly try learning your new language back home ( I did but found a weekly course inadequate considering my appalling memory).