It’s funny – I come from a very small village with just about 3,000 inhabitants somewhere at the very edge of the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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, “dépaysement” 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
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
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!