The Language Barrier

21 June 2012. Filed under category Nomad.
Standing face to face with the language barrier.

Standing face to face with the language barrier.
(Image by Freelance Flaneur)

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.

Getting lost in the language maze.

Getting lost in the language maze.
(© 2011 Cathy Fields)

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.

The Solution

Hello?

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.

Travel Updates

I’ve begun running an RPG over Google Hangouts, which returns to me one of the things I miss the most from my geo-static life in London. Apart from this, I continue to learn tango (loving it), do my P90X workouts (hating it) and work on The Modern Nomad. (You may have noticed the new sharing buttons below. Why not try them out?)

36

Do you have tips for living in a country where you don't master the language?

Skip to bottom
  1. Bill Chapman says:

    I would like to argue the case for wider use of Esperanto. It is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states.

    Take a look at http://www.esperanto.net

    Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing in about fifteen countries over recent years. I recommend it to any nomad, as a way of makinbg frienly local contacts.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      I thought that Esperanto was more or less dead, in as much as very few people know it and so you would rarely meet anyone who speaks it. In any case, the idea is absolutely wonderful and if I was world dictator for a generation, I would force everyone to learn the language.

      By the way, if anyone is curious what this article would look like in Esperanto, scroll to the top menu where you will find it as one of the many languages that you can translate this blog to, courtesy of Google Translate.

    2. Brian Barker says:

      Esperanto is in fact more widespread than people imagine. It is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. It is the 29th most used language in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook and Google translate recently added to its prestigious list of 64 languages.

      Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet. Financier George Soros learnt Esperanto as a child.

      Esperanto is a living language – see http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

      Their online course http://www.lernu.net has 125 000 hits per day and Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per month. That can’t be bad :)

      1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

        Right, I’ve added Esperanto to the ‘Someday’ list of my Getting Things Done system, so once a week I’ll consider learning it until I do or I drop it. Let’s see which comes first!

        1. Bill Chapman says:

          If you start to learn soon, you’ll be ready to meet some of the 1500 Esperanto speakers from 60 countries who will be attending the Universala Kongreso (a kind of Esperanto parliament) in Buenos Aires in 2014. http://www.retkompaso.com.ar/

  2. Rich says:

    You have the solution already, in a lot of ways… English. There are english-speakers just about everywhere, and they can be your start to learning enough of the language to communicate, while giving you people you can communicate with in the meantime. It shouldn’t be too hard to find English-speakers these days either. I’m sure Google or Meetup, or something similar can help…

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      That is very true, and I have English speaking friends here in Buenos Aires with whom I find treasured respite from the language barrier. Sometimes I feel that I am cheating when I speak with them, but those feelings only last a short time as it simply feels too good to be understood, fully, by someone within touching distance.

  3. Arturo says:

    I’ll try to express myself in English this time: to be more helpful (or more frustrating;-)

    I’ve been thinking about the same problem from a little different perspective for a long time. I’ve been an active traveler (or sometimes tourist) for almost the last 20 years of my life and always it has been a pleasure to communicate with the people in their local language. For me it is THE difference that really distinguishes a traveller (or say it “nomad”;-) from a tourist. So a long, long time ago, even before I had an idea of me ending up in Buenos Aires, I came upon the list of the most popular languages (you can see a version of it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_number_of_native_speakers or here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_total_number_of_speakers#George_H._J._Weber.27s_estimate).

    From the 10 most popular languages I already knew English and Russian. And then I made up my mind to learn another language, for the sake of making my travel experience more enjoyable, after analyzing this list (or a similar one).

    OK, my main criteria were:
    – The language should be in the list of the most popular languages of the world (see above)
    – I should have some interest in visiting the areas where this language is spoken (Punjabi fell out as Pakistan definitely was not on my top priority list)
    – The language should not be only popular in the number of people speaking it, but also in the number of different countries and territories I could visit with language (here I said good-buy to the idea of learning Mandarin, Hindi, Bengali and Japanese as they are quite geographically limited)
    – It shouldn’t cost me a leg to master the language (Arabic as well as the aforementioned Middle / Far Eastern languages were “downgraded” at this step)

    So I got left with Spanish, French, Portuguese and German. I didn’t like the sound of the German language at time, but I did like the sound of Spanish. Spanish was (and still is) also the most popular Romance language. Also, I thought, that after learning one Romance language it would be much easier for me to access other Romance languages which are quite popular as well (Portuguese for sure, but also Italian and French). So I started my first attempts of learning Spanish some 10 years ago. Which led me to nowhere due to the lack of real dedication.

    Then, 4 years ago, I took a half-gap-year which quickly turned into an intensive Spanish learning course in Buenos Aires. Now I feel very comfortable travelling almost everywhere in the Americas (English for the US and most of the Canada, Spanish for almost every other country “here” and as an added benefit: yes! I can understand and communicate in basic Portuguese which is really so close to Spanish) and the Iberian Peninsula.

    Looking back, to my mind, I couldn’t have done better. And when thinking about “what’s next” I have already got an excellent future language learning choices: German and Arabic.

    Not French, Italian or Portuguese: I feel (and know) that, being the languages of the same Roman group as Spanish, it will be much easier to learn them in the case of an “urgent” necessity.

    Yes! German as the representative of a major missing European language group (I hope after German it’ll always be easier to learn Dutch or any of the Nordic languages, in the case of the same aforementioned “urgent” necessity).

    Yes! Arabic: I still want to challenge myself with a non-Indo-European language with a different script from Latin. And the choice of countries and cultures is about the same rich as that one of Spanish speaking countries.

    The actual plans, surely, may be changed by some aforementioned “urgent” necessity, but this is the idea I’m thinking about. After all, after learning Spanish, I also hava an idea of how much time each language should “cost” me:
    – Other Romance and Slavic languages: surely less than Spanish for the first time; so, depending on language, 2-3 months of intensive courses would be OK (for Portuguese and Ukrainian may be even less) to start communicating. Well, the perfection is never attained (I’m still not perfect neither in Spanish, nor English or Russian), but I can guess the approximate time needed if I wanted to learn any of these languages for the sake of living and working in a corresponding country.
    – German should take me more or less the same as Spanish, so 3-5 months to start with.
    – Arabic… God knows. But I ‘d bet on a 6 six months vacation in one or several Arabic-speaking countries.

    Well… a word of warning (in my humble opinion, of course). I really DO NOT recommend to follow the recommendation given above of finding some English speaking friends here. That’s a real trap that could multiply your language acquiring time at least 2 if not 10 times (I’m serious). I personally know some people here, in Buenos Aires, which have been living here twice the time I’ve spent. They’ve fallen in the easy trap of “I’ll just make some English speaking friends here to give me a break from my Spanish classes”. The catch here is that they end up having only English speaking friends and never using their Spanish anywhere outside the supermarket. There’s no use of learning of a language if you do not use it in everyday communication: yes, it is difficult, yes, it is frustrating, yes, it feels sometimes like a hell of loneliness, but, to my mind, there is no other solution. I studied English at school in a specialized class for 6 years 6 days a week and still was afraid to use it when I first encountered a native English speaker (we did not have an option of English language films or other type of English language entertainment during the Soviet times). Just ask yourself, if you’ll ever in your life get another possibility to study anything for 6 years…

    OK, may be all this point of mine was more about language learning than closing the communication gap, but I believe, that, without some language skills the communication barrier, especially at the social level is actually unbreakable… I remember that just the fact of speaking Spanish in Northern Mexico (where almost everyone speaks English) made a conversation completely different, yes, also with English speaking mexicans – all of a sudden when you stubbornly refuse to speak English, the Mexican waiter in a small cafe opens up and tells you in 30 minutes much more than he has ever told to all of his just English speaking clients over the last 10 years of his waiter’s career.

    Another option, of course, is choosing the countries of settlement considering the languages you already know. In your case the English still takes you quite a long way: not only it is the mother tongue in quite many countries, it is very well understood in many small countries with small own languages: at least in Europe you should not fear living with just English in almost any Nordic country or the majority of former Eastern block countries. It will serve you very well in the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, even Portugal and Greece. And I think that nowadays in Germany as well (well, after Swedish and English German would not be so difficult to master either). A great choice, isn’t it?

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      I can’t help but laugh reading your comment. You are a scientist, economist and programmer all rolled up in one! I can totally relate to the methodology laid out.

      I do wonder if I haven’t made a mistake out of not taking Spanish lessons while I’ve been in Buenos Aires. But, I wonder which of my other three focus areas (P90X, Tango, The Modern Nomad) that I would have to sacrifice for it… Sophie’s choice.

      So, in short, your advice is to bang my head against the language barrier until I break through? I know I have a thick skull, but still… anyway, I think the reply more than deserves a hug which will be delivered during tomorrow’s tango event. ;-)

      1. Arturo says:

        want me to put on my “economist hat” once again? a long time ago I studied international economics, and just after reading your reply I remembered the theories of absolute advantage (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absolute_advantage) and comparative advantage (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparative_advantage). The general idea: every country (or corporation or person) has to specialize in what it can achieve with the lowest relative “cost” (or absolute “cost”) in comparison to other competing parties. Let’s turn it the other way round and say that “a nomad (or a traveller, or even a tourist) in each country should engage in the activity which is relatively (or absolutely) most beneficial in that particular country”.

        From the other side, let’s put on a quality manager’s hat and remember the infamous quality square (which is sometimes reduced to a triangle): functionality – time – money – quality: you can’t change just one component without affecting the others. So, you as a nomad have got limited time (6 months in each place and some 40 – 70 more years within your life) and limited money. For that you want to achieve some “functionality” (tango, toned body, blog, some language… you name it!) at some “quality” or “level” (e.g., a blog followed by your best friends/family members vs. a top travel blog followed by thousands of followers).

        So joining those two theories you’d probably want to use each country in a way it provided “best performance” according to the quality square (e.g., it’s both cheaper and better to learn tango in Argentina than in the U.S. or Sweden; also though it might be cheaper to learn tango in Paraguay it would be quite unacceptable from the viewpoint of quality).

        So if considering your three focus areas and the contending Spanish… Well, the final answer to this question should be given by yourself. As for my $0.02 I’d say that (1) “The Modern Nomad” is the essence of your life-time project which you just can’t give up at any moment of your life [critical functionality you won't give up], (2) Buenos Aires in the terms of absolute/competitive advantage is the best place in the world to study tango [important functionality, best quality, acceptable pricing within the time-limits you've got;-)], (3) Spanish (if that’s the language of your choice to break the communication barrier in your potential future settlements) can be learnt much more economically in e.g., Paraguay or Bolivia or many Central American countries than in Argentina as far as you don’t detest a particular accent of Spanish or just hate the idea of living in that particular country, (4) well, my dear friend, P90X seems (to me, of course) the less country dependent of them all. On the other hand, if it was your top priority of all of them then that’s another story, for sure.

        But just for now: keep enjoying the remaining months in Buenos Aires and remember – you’ve still got some 60 – 100 nomadic half-year periods so just do not get pissed of by the fact you didn’t do it all here. After all, even old day nomads used to return to the places they’d been before when the pastures had recovered from the previous overgrazing. So you can come back to Buenos Aires any time when it recovers from the overgrazing of yours ;-)

        As for me (if I consider myself as a some mix of a nomad and a settler): I still keep grazing in the lush tango meadows of Buenos Aires, well, when they get depleted I’ll think what’s next…

        1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

          I must recommend that you check out Freakonomics Radio (downloadable as a podcast) as I think you would appreciate their view of the world.

          And I might steal the comparative advantage of different countries for self-improvement idea for a future blog post. It is just so compelling, isn’t it, that one can go to the ‘source’ of something you wish to learn and learn it there!

          As for the P90X, the reasoning behind picking Buenos Aires for learning it was based on two things. The first is that I selected it as one of this year’s rocks, and so I wanted to get it over and done with as soon as possible, at least before the year was over. The second was that I knew BsAs to be a place that I’d be happy to stay ‘settled’ in for a few good months so I could build up a routine of working out and cooking healthy food at home. (Difficult to do when you live on the sofas of friends around the US etc.)

          A big thank you for your comments on this! It has really opened a new way of looking at things and I’m sure others have liked it too! Thanks for contributing!

  4. Craig Brown says:

    My suggestion is a bit of an elaboration on Rick’s idea. At least you don’t speak Swedish and Basque.

    1. Teach English as a second language (or Swedish). I have a friend who does this in San Diego. I can ask her about getting an actual qualification to do this. Or you could do it privately. The the native will want to speak to you in English.
    2. This is kind of cheating, if your intention is to be immersed in the culture, but networking with other nomads would keep the loneliness away and make you friend to visit in other parts of the world. Bulletin boards in hostels?
    3. Advertise for dates in the local “gaydar” service with the prominent notice that you are looking for guys who want to practice their English.
    4. Get a job at a local tour company (anything!) where English would be valued. My friend Jason who owns a travel company in Costa Rica would probably like to have you around, as just one example.
    5. I experienced this problem. I lived in Spain for six months with a family that did not speak a word of English. I communicated with them for basic things, but we never became close and they could never understand my depth through the banal things I said (as you relate). In Santo Domingo I dated a local who would not speak English to me. This was good. I made a concerted effort to learn the language (three feet high flash cards/translating newspapers). But as you so beautifully noted, if he got with his friends he was off on a tear and I became an quiet dumbstruck wallflower. They cut off the second half of every word! They understood each other via inflection and context. This idea is more sympathy, with a small suggestion to keep studying. (Listen to TV?)
    6. Here is an idea: HOW DID YOU LEARN ENGLISH SO WELL??!! You have utterly absorbed it, whether we cut off the second half of the word or not. How did that happen? Spanish is has the world’s second largest number of native speakers after Mandarin. (English is third). Maybe it’s worth it.

    Big cyber hug! – as little as that helps, especially when you are cold.

  5. J. says:

    Google translate for sure, on an android phone! (Waiting to collect my hug on the playa with those new P90X arms of yours!)

  6. Melissa says:

    Gustav,
    I feel your pain. It’s difficult to exist as a resident in a country where you can’t communicate with locals in their own tongue.

    I don’t have a solution other than to be patient and perhaps study children’s books to get a basic grasp of Spanish. When I first came to Holland in 2007, Dutch sounded like gutteral gibberish to me. And the pronunciation…ooolala…no one could understand me even when I tried to speak it! After a few years, I bought a book + CD, but it was boring to learn that way. Now, after nearly 5 years of living here, listening to Dutch daily + studying Dutch subtitles on English TV shows (which is how the Dutchies learn at an early age…from Sesame St. + Dora the Explorer) I can understand + read very basic Dutch and my vocab improves daily.

    Although nearly everyone speaks English here, understanding the language is helpful for eavesdropping, starting conversations + reading mail/recipes/newspapers. I’m not sure you have this kind of time as a nomad In a pinch, a Spanish lover could be the best solution. Good luck!

  7. Dave says:

    I usually stay in countries as long as the tourist visa allows (1 to 3 months), and that usually determines the amount of language I learn. I’ve never learned as much as I want to, and I’ve been really lazy in some countries where English is spoken by everyone to a high standard (Malaysia, Philippines) and pretty much only learned ‘hello,’ ‘thank you’ and some numbers.

    If I was staying somewhere longer, I’d make more of an effort. Some of the worst people I’ve met while travelling have been English teachers working in Asia, the type who don’t seem interested in the places they’re staying, and are only there for lack of jobs back home. I’ve seen people who lived in Korea for two years not bothering to use a single Korean word when booking hotels and doing other basic things covered in lesson two of most DIY language courses. Two years? I can’t respect that laziness.

  8. Brother Henrik says:

    I no Denise language :-)

  9. I don’t have a solution but what works for me is the old standby. Learn some very polite basics. Pay attention to the words you use most and memorize them in the language of you new country. Please. Thank you. No thank you. Pretty. Tasty. Beer. Check please. etc., etc…, One of the most important is, “How do you say (?) in (new language). You learn faster and people know you are trying.

    Most important though is not even a word but eye contact and a smile.

  10. Martin says:

    I think that finding a job(maybe part time) that requires english(as Craig suggested) is a great idea. I know a person who did similarly. All her collegues were local(and english speaking), so after a time she developed a mix of english and local language – with gradually using more and more local. Now she speaks local very well with only occasional slip into english. It is maybe not the purest way, but combined with conscious effort and lessons this might end up well.

    Good luck!
    (whatever way you choose)

  11. Russell says:

    So, now you’ve been in Argentina for a while and have settled in, got to know people and perhaps have a routine, it’s just time to relax and let it all flow over you. Don’t fight it. The best advice someone gave to me 10 years ago when I was in your shoes, was to just treat it as a game. Enjoy it and don’t get frustrated. If you have a language teacher, ask the questions YOU want answers to. If you don’t Gustav, I can thoroughly recommend mine, Maria Jose, who taught me to master the language thus could teach anyone ! [ majo1313@arnet.com.ar ]
    When are you coming to visit Bariloche ? September’s a good time for good snow and sunshine. Say hi to Beatriz.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Russell! I’m so glad to see that you are lurking in the shadows! Everyone, may I present Russell, the man who got me in touch with my lovely landlady and landlord and the reason I’ve stayed in such an awesome place in Buenos Aires!

      I think this might be the best tip I’ve had so far. Yes, you are right! I should treat it more like a game. I’ve used that trick to deal with things that ‘gets to me’ before, and it really does work. It gives you a much-needed distance to the problem.

      As for when I come to Bariloche, not this time around I’m afraid. I have however put Argentina on my boomerang list, meaning I will return, probably in the summer as everyone tells me Bariloche is impossible to get to this time of year. They make it sound like it is buried beneath a mountain of snow, like a lost village in an Edgar Allen Poe story.

  12. Dave M says:

    Hello Gustav! I last ran into you at Paudie’s wedding. Anyhow, a suggestion. One suggestion of getting a better idea of what is going on in any conversation: reading body language. A bonus is that it’s still useful even in English and Swedish speaking countries.

    In any case, all the best overcoming your communication woes.

  13. Dave M says:

    Also, it might be worth your time checking out these websites:

    http://www.duolingo.com (using this myself)

    http://www.memrise.com (was recommended it)

    1. Craig Brown says:

      Wow, Dave M, that memrise.com link is great!!! I got sucked into the Art History game for an hour! Great way to learn something!

  14. In a way, you are lucky to be a native speaker of English, which is so widespread that you can make yourself understood in most situations. Learning a new language while living in that country is easier than just learning it from textbooks. However, at least in my case, no matter how well I get to speak a language, I find it incredibly hard to tell my stories in a natural way, or to have relaxing chats, because everything has to be processed two ways: thoughts that come in my native language get translated before I release them as words. Conversely, when people talk to me, words need to pass through the translation process and only then I get their full meaning. Although frustrating, I have to admit that I improved my language skills a lot while living abroad for several months at a time.

  15. I realise I’ve just paid you a compliment before: I thought you were a native English speaker. Then I read your About page… :)

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Ha ha, yes, that made me chuckle. I love inadvertent compliments. Thank you for the comment and I’m glad to have a fellow traveller read my text.

  16. Karthick V S says:

    Hi Gustav…… Am seeing the blogs right from morning….and so much hooked to the lifestyle you have choosen.

    So much impressed with you blogs.

    your photographs too are really so nice which i could recommend to put it up in NATGEO— think you might be already into that.

    Coming to the language barrier……

    We in india we have more than 20 languages within the country and at times people manage to struggle with the most widely used English………

    I am from south if india which in itself has 4 diffrent language…. I speak read and write tamil , english, hindi fluently. and has 2 additional language which i speak moderately…..

    its only the quest for learning which pushes us to observe. listen and try out words by ourself…. let it be wrong sometimes….. the locals will definitely try to correct you…

    thats my experiance….!!!!! I havent been to places outside india…. and still there are so much to see withing my country,…… equally i want to explore outside world too….. waiting when i going to achieve it.!!!!!!!

  17. B says:

    I am B. 24 years old, since 9 months I moved to Germany knowing literally just two words: Apfel (apple) and Beer.
    Unfortunately the economoic crisis in my country forced me to move abroad for working, and look, I can adapt really well to any kind of situation, but this is just too much.
    I moved in several cities, I started my life from 0 already 4 times and I always felt great. I felt totally free, thinking that I have no limits and fear, that anytime I wanted I could just take my suitcases and start somewhere else. Big Lie.
    Before Germany I moved to London for learning english (I m sorry if my english is not great anymore). I had very basic english before moving there, but as a friend defined it, “that city is like a church without religion”, that means everyone can be him/herself without any problem of integration. That was for me. You can fit perfectly a place where there’s not any clear cultural predominance. It’s just amazing.
    After that, I found a job in a lost town Germany, in a quite conservative part of Germany actually.
    I came for few months but then my contract has been extended. I underline this part cause I strongly think that everyone can “survive” in another country without knowing the language (up to 8 months).
    Different is, like in my case, when you have to stay for a longer period.
    Well I can tell everybody is a constat up and down of feelings.
    Sitting everyday at a table with people that are joking, and laughing and talking is frustrating. It moves really deep and lost feelings that you never expected to be there: from sadness to anger.
    I am a really positive person, I always try to see the best in every situation, but this experience is really hard.
    The first months people are interested in you like a pink monkey in a zoo, and thank to english (if you even don’t speak english stay in your homecountry, please) you can even spend nice evenings and laughing very much, get to know people and so on. This would happen if you are also an outgoing, talkative person, otherwise is hard that someone will approach you, especially due to the fact that in the north of Europe people tend to be more descrete and shy.
    After the “pink monkey effect” the mothertongue speakers will gradually loose interest in committing themselves speaking english all the time “because of you” and you will find yourself always more often, sitting at that table, staring at the beer can, while everybody is having fun, and terribly missing your country, your language and your friends.
    Moving for LIVING (not travelling)in a place where you don’t know the language is possible but not fun. It’s realy really hard.
    At least you have to be enough for yourself,
    be good at cheer yourself up,
    be a positive person,
    be easygoing and talkative,
    DON’t be SHY
    have had other similar experience in the past.
    My practical tip to avoid a costant blue mood is:
    – for the first period: be surrounded by fluent english speaker that are also mothertongue in your host country.
    Study hard for all the stay long.
    Have a friend who speaks Your mothertongue (it’s good for your heart ;) )
    – Live in an house with locals but fluent english speakers.

    Moving in another country even without knowing the language It’s still a great experience for few months,less than one year, but seriously, if you can avoid, if you can find a job where the native language is at least easy to learn for you, choose this second option.
    I wrote too much, in a bad english. Sorry about that XD
    Kuesschen von Deutschland.

    1. Thank you for that touching comment. I recognised so much of the emotions behind those words. It was like I was back in Buenos Aires with that sinking feeling in my stomach that I was utterly disconnected from the friends around me, even though we were hanging out. And then, it would lift, and I would be fine for a bit, and then, bang!, you’re back down again, and there is nothing I could put my finger on to say what I would be feeling the next moment. That language barrier eats away at you. My only tip is to make learning the local language a priority. The wearing down of your energy takes a few months, and in that time, you better learn the language or start looking for a flight out of there.

  18. John Oliver says:

    Most of my travel experience to date has been in Asia – learning the language of each country is beyond me. I resort to my mother tongue – English, a big smile and appropriate eye contact – I also pay close attention to others body language to “read” the situation I’m encountering. Stay relaxed and be patient and all your basic needs will be meet – with a bit of adventure included as a twist. We are all human and have the same basic needs universally. Each culture you encounter does things a bit differently and calls them by another name – “same-same but different”.
    The important new words will stick in your vocabulary as the need requires.
    English speaking people will identify themselves to you – as you arrive at any new destination. They are wanting to help you as much as you need them. Trust your instincts – accept their help or politely say ‘no thank you’ and move on.
    Have fun and enjoy the moments of confusion and misunderstandings – laugh at yourself and the situation as you struggle like a new born baby to get what you want… Use all of your life experience, professional skills, education, training, acting lessons – what ever you’ve got to convey your needs. Someone in the small crowed that will soon form around you will get it – and now all you have to do is work out how much you should pay for the newly obtained goods or service. Accept for the first couple of days in a new country you will probably pay more than you need to – just be observant of what the locals pay and offer the same amount.
    In Asia people are wanting to practice their English ( or learn English ) this can be a great source of income or a from of barter for food and accommodation in return for lessons in English conversation.
    Good luck and happy travels.

    1. Yep, that is how I have experienced the language barrier during shorter trips, as a fun little obstacle that make you giggle. But it gets old after a couple of months, and give it a couple more and you start to feel isolated and alone instead. At least, that is my experience.

  19. B says:

    I agree with Gustav. In the short term is fine, but is not gonna be fun for some months. It’s about real integration.

  20. Grace says:

    I can relate so perfectly to what you described about the language barrier. I am currently studying abroad alone in Mexico in high school and it is very challenging. I am glad to know I am not the only person feeling this way!

  21. Elaine says:

    Hey I just wanna say thank you for sharing this and your honesty. Sometimes it really helps to know others go through the same problems and issues. You managed to put into words some of my feelings from these experiences too so well done on that!! I’ve been living abroad for a year and a half now and can’t say I’ve found a solution-sorry! Though there’s good days and bad days and sometimes it gets easier. I’m told it gets easier! So hold on, keep trying, immersing yourself in one language more, often helps and be kind to yourself :) and if you’re anything like me rest your weary head sometimes,sometimes we’re doing better than we give ourselves credit for. I’ve got to remind myself to be kinder to myself. We’re doing brave things! :) sorry that was like an emotional pep talk ha but is crazy the unexpected things language does to you and the pressure,frustration and trapped feelings that can occur. Take care & hugs

  22. Elaine says:

    Me again! Just wanted to share this article with you that I came across along with your blog, think I googled something with ‘communication barriers in second language’! Anyway maybe like me, you will find it interesting and it will give you more insight into the language/communication battles… http://www.fountainmagazine.com/Issue/detail/Cross-Cultural-Communication-A-Foreign-Language-Perspective

    1. Wow, thank you for that link. A really well-written article. (and long!) And thank for your other comments lately. I really appreciate them. Best of luck with your own travels!

Do you have tips for living in a country where you don't master the language?

Click to see allowed HTML.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> <ol> <ul> <li>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.