Out of all the hardships that I’ve come across in my nomadic life, dealing with living several months in a country where I do not speak the language, or speak it poorly, is without a doubt the hardest of them all. There is no underestimating the importance of language for connecting people, and the space between disconnected people is breeding ground for our mental monsters.
Many practical problems arise from not knowing the language of your host country. You may fret over whether the train departing in a few minutes is going to or coming from Zurich. Grocery shopping may take twice as long. You may end up with a random haircut since you couldn’t explain what you wanted. But these practical problems are benign. They rarely incur long-term consequences and can usually be sorted out with a bit of extra time. In many ways, these little challenges make travelling more exciting and can teach you many great lessons in problem solving.
The social problems are far more insidious.
Making a new friend or going on a date is a test of patience and perseverance when you constantly have to say, “I don’t understand,” and stop to look up a word or explain some proverb. It is frustrating and maddening to sit in front of another human being (One that you wish to befriend because god knows you need one in this new country.) and have ideas, opinions and stories build up like hot steam in a pressure cooker but with no way of expressing them, and transitively, no way of expression yourself. You imagine how the person in front of you must think you stupid because you never say anything but the most banal things, and soon you’ll start to feel stupid too.
I swear to god, at times it is all I can do but keep myself from screaming.
The problems worsen exponentially by every new person who joins the conversation. With one or two people, you can ask them to stop, explain, speak slowly or use easier words. But when you are in a group of five or more people, you just don’t have the heart to be the stumbling block for the entire conversation. So you sit back and listen, straining your ears and mind alike to pick up the meaning of the conversation. But soon the context of the conversation slips out of your grasp and you spend the rest of the evening trying to piece it together again using the few words you manage to snatch from the air.
And this is where the isolation kicks in. The frustration of not being able the express yourself and the pain of hovering on the fringe of every conversation drives you to self-isolation. It is easier to be alone than to feel alone in a crowd. Thus cut away from social interactions, you have become the limping gazelle, separated from the herd and an easy target for your mental monsters.
It is not as simple as just learning the language because learning a language to the level that these problems go away is not a simple task. A six-month visit to Russia isn’t enough time to learn Russian. And even if it were, I still wouldn’t want to constantly study new languages. I didn’t become a nomad out of a desire to be a linguist with a battery of languages at my disposal.
The effects of not being able to express yourself to the people around you build up gradually, and they become a problem first after a few months, at least for me. So a way to deal with this could be to spend more time in countries where you do speak the language, in my case English and Swedish. (Swedish speaking countries would be Sweden.)
Or I have to find a way to overcome the communication barrier, or at least not let it lower my spirit.
I don’t know how to do that — yet. And this is where you come in. I included this ‘solution’ section despite having none in the hope that you, dear reader, may have solutions and suggestions to share. Please do so in the comments. I promise hugs to whoever can help me.