I’m a big fan of foreign language learning, but the reality of living in another language? It’s so much fun! And the absolute worst.
I don’t know when I’ve felt less emotionally stable. Oh wait yes I do, it was when I was living in Japanese. In fact every time I feel overwhelmed by Norwegian I remind myself that at least I’m no longer trying to tackle Japanese.
But even if Norwegian is pretty much the easiest language ever for English speakers to learn, trying to live in another language can sometimes suck. And then again, sometimes it’s awesome!
Awesome: even the smallest, most mundane things can send you on a high when you have a language win
This is one of my favorite things about living in a foreign country with a new language, because I love feeling like a rockstar and getting even the smallest thing accomplished in another language makes me feel like just that. Like that time when I had first started working at the supermarket here and a customer asked me if I knew where the fersk gjær was and I was all “YEAH I DO!!” and then went home and told Dan about it at least five times.
Sucks: the possibility of a huge language fail that will leave you devastated
I know, I need to be less sensitive. But while most days will send me on all sorts of reeling highs from my language wins, they’ll send me on just as many deep lows from my language fails. Sometimes the simplest word will fail me, or I’ll suddenly realize that I’ve been saying a word wrong for months. And then I’ll start beating myself up over how much I suck at such an easy language – a language that I’ve been exposed to all my life!
This language learning thing really is an emotional roller coaster.
Awesome: it’s a new way of seeing the world
A lot of people don’t agree with this, but I’m a big believer in the power of language to guide the way we see and experience the world, and even the way we reason. I wrote my senior thesis on this, comparing a Japanese philosopher’s logic to Japanese grammar, and while the entire philosophy department collectively rolled their eyes at my thesis defense, I still think I was right.
I mean, just try learning Russian and not finding yourself totally thinking like Dostoevsky.
Sucks: your personality can feel warped
When I speak Norwegian I feel like I’m a bit of a different person. I think it’s because I never learned Norwegian in a formal setting, so all of my Norwegian comes from what I’ve picked up from people around me. In a way it’s cool because it’s like I’m picking up the culture at the same time as the language, while on the other hand it’s turned me into quite the copycat.
I guess until I get a stronger handle on this language the things I say and even think are going to be limited to what I know in Norwegian, which is going to be largely dictated by whom I’m hanging around and the words and phrases I hear on a regular basis. Weird, no?
Awesome: you’re constantly learning
Everyday, whether I want to or not, I learn things. While working at a supermarket! I’d say that’s pretty cool.
Sucks: you’re constantly learning
Um, sometimes a girl needs a break, okay? Always having to concentrate is exhausting.
Awesome: it’s the best way ever to really learn about a culture
Because how are you really going to learn about a culture if you can’t eavesdrop on people? That’s some true language learning motivation right there.
Sucks: there’s a fine line between embracing a culture and making fun of it, and sometimes you cross it
The most extreme was in Japan – maybe because I had lived there as a child I still had Japanese in me somewhere, because my transformation when I spoke the language was extreme. My voice would shoot up an octave, I would nod and “eeeeh” enthusiastically at anything and everything in that oh so Japanese way, and I always, always covered my mouth when I laughed.
A few years ago in Chiang Mai my friend and I bumped into some confused Japanese tourists and I ended up switching to (very broken) Japanese to help them out and at the end of it all I turned back to my friend who was just staring open-mouthed at me convinced that I had been totally mocking the tourists by repeating all their foreign mannerisms.
And it happens (to a lesser extent) in Norway too. Like how I’ll copy Norwegians’ overuse of the word “cozy,” but every once in a while instead of passing as totally Norwegian myself, I’ll go just a bit too far and be met with raised eyebrows as someone informs me that no, shoveling the the roof tonight is not going to be cozy. Whoops.
Awesome: bragging rights
Everyone who has lived abroad in another language knows how fun it is being able to show off your new language skills in front of visitors. In fact, I love the feeling so much that when we get foreigners in the shop I never tell them that I’m American when they praise my English. I know, I’m the worst (but they think I’m the best!!).
That time my Dad visited me in Japan
Sucks: you sound like a fool
I remember Dan asking me how long it would be before he could be funny in Norwegian, or even when people would be able to feel comfortable speaking with him. Some days it will seem like he’s definitely reached that point, while others he’ll spend most of his energy finding ways not to have to speak Norwegian with anyone.
The day he first started working at the cash register several people at work came up to me to tell me how well he was doing, and how clever he is! I didn’t think much of it because like yeah, Dan’s the smartest person I know, until I told him and he pointed out that figuring out how to work a register isn’t exactly difficult. Even if it’s not conscious, I guess it’s hard not on some level to assume that someone who has trouble communicating is a bit slow.
Awesome: people are nice to you
Sure it’s out of pity, but i’ll take it!
Sucks: the pressure is on
This isn’t exactly a class I can squeeze by with a passing grade, you know? This is my life.
Awesome: you can just blame it on the language barrier
Like if someone at work comes to me all upset that I forgot to empty the plastic dumpster I can just look really puzzled, tilt my head to one side, and repeat in my thickest American accent “…plastic?”
I mean, I’ve never done that, obviously, it’s just good to know that I can.
Sucks: sometimes people don’t notice you’re foreign
So of course this is mostly a good thing, except when it just makes situations incredibly awkward.
Like that time a customer asked me if we have brooms and I just looked confused and was all “A broom? Sorry, I don’t know what that is.” At first I thought his reaction was a little harsh, shaking his head saying “she doesn’t know what a broom is!” Like, give me a break, language learning is a process!
Until I realized that he was actually probably now headed home to despair to his wife over how spoilt teenagers these days are. Yes, teenagers, because the only Norwegians with my job are teenagers. And while that should probably make me feel a bit depressed, I mostly just love how often people assume I’m 19.
Awesome: it makes you a better kisser
Okay, I might be reaching here just a tad – perhaps there are more negatives to living in another language when you’re still learning that language. Though someone – I think my Russian professor? – once told me that learning to make all the new sounds of a foreign language also makes you a better kisser. Tell that to your middle school language students!
Sucks: feeling like an inconvenience
The worst is feeling guilty for making people speak Norwegian – at least in Japan people had to put up with my poor language skills if they wanted to communicate with me. But basically every Norwegian ever is fluent in English, which can leave me feeling pretty guilty for making them suffer through a slow, faltering Norwegian conversation with me.
Though I don’t feel this way as much in Rauland, as not once has someone at the supermarket switched to English with me – either English hasn’t made it up to these mountains or mountain life has made the locals absurdly patient. (They’re really patient here.)