language of the world

5 eye-opening things I have learned about language living abroad

Many of you might think of living abroad as some glamorous ideal of experiencing all the world has to offer: fancy cocktails, amazing food, exciting culture, an exotic language. This sounds more like a holiday. Others of you might associate it with adaptation, learning, making mistakes, feeling out of place.

This difference in opinion might be in your experience of living abroad. Don’t get me wrong: being able to uproot yourself and experience life in a different countries is the best things that our globalised world has to offer.

However, there is a difference between living abroad in a country where, more or less, you have the expectation that most people will understand what you need to say (the magic of speaking English) and moving to a country where you know it will be a struggle to be understood.

In this post I will share 5 things I have learned when I first moved the UK.

1. Language is Meaning

When it comes to language, it’s not all about grammar and vocabulary. Language is what frames our everyday lives. Whether you notice it or not, you are surrounded by language ALL THE TIME. Language is in the thoughts you think, the ingredients you check at the back of your ‘are-these-really-vegan’ biscuits, in the conversations you overhear. And it’s not just about words. Languages are all different and some things will have varying meaning and nuances that might not be available straight away to a learner. For example, think of the word ‘fair’ – it could be used in the context of a ‘fair complexion’, a ‘fair outcome’ or even a ‘country fair’. Sometimes this can make language learning more difficult. Language is meaning: language helps us make meaning of things if you know what the meaning is!

2. Language is Power

Language can be a source of power. Knowing what to say, when to say it and how to say it gives you a HUGE advantage to those who have to interpret or freshly learn the meaning of words and phrases. This is not simply about confidence. Having the right words ready to hand gives the speaker the power over the person who does not. Have you ever had a debate with a friend? Do you remember the feeling you had you managed to find just the right words to get your point across? It felt great, didn’t it? It’s not so great when you know what you want to say, but you just don’t have the words for it.

Also, being able to read and write is real power. Many people in the world are still illiterate (in the UK too) and they find themselves hugely at a disadvantage. Try to think of what jobs you could hope to find without being able to read or write. Not many, right?

3. Language is Political

Language is a political tool. Some words have very specific meanings and associations. Take the word ‘immigrant’: it will evoke all sorts of discourse around legitimacy, xenophobia, nationhood, etc. (maybe even Trump’s many ramblings). It’s not just a word. Or take the word ‘innocence’: it might take you to the last true-crime documentary you watched, or it might bring back memories of an unfair verdict. ‘Innocence’ is seldom objective and always political. Language help politicians, thinkers and philosophers build discourses like these and when used to elevate oneself over others can be a very dangerous form of communication.

4. Language is Lived

Following from the previous point, I have realised that language is lived. Let me explain to you what I mean: there are certain words in my native language that have such visceral meanings and connections, that it’s hard to say or hear them without a specific feeling or memory coming back to me. For example, when I say pasta al ragù I don’t just see the dish, I see my dad cooking my favourite meal for my sister and I, watching TV and enjoying our time together. When I see a gelato shop in London, I don’t just think of delicious ice cream; I think of summer strolls, my local gelateria and long talks with my mum.
What I am trying to show you is that there is so much linked to a word and when these visceral, emotional experience have not yet been made in a specific language, it can be hard to navigate the meaning of words in a different country.

Also, think of poetry! Have you tried reading poetry in a different language? It’s just not the same – it’s still beautiful and subjective, but not in same way as native poetry.

5. Language is Important

Language might be the most important thing we have come up with as a species. Animals have their amazing way of communicating (if you have time, check out this amazing article on how whales communicate), but we have something that no other species has. We have meaningful words that combined in different ways help us articulate philosophies, ideologies, recipes and emotions. Can you even imagine a world without language?

Language the way we connect with one another and it’s a window into a person’s culture, life and experience.

My challenge to you is: think of a friend that you might have whose native language is different from your and ask them what their favourite word in their language is. I promise you you’ll learn something new about them that you might not have ever learned otherwise!

Some other reflections

The next time you go on holiday (the day will come eventually! This cannot go on forever!) try and immerse yourself in the language and see how it feels. It might give you a much broader horizon to understand the new family in the neighbourhood or the exchange student in your class.

There is something to say also about having therapy in your native language. From my own personal experience I have found that most of the early childhood stuff had to be done in my native tongue whilst more recent things, which had happened here in the UK, just had to be explored in English. What is your experience?

If you’re living abroad and are struggling to learn the language there are loads of resources that you can try: apps like Babel or Duolingo, language cafès and online classes via platforms like Tutorful. You are not alone in this. Also, check out my counselling directory, counselling is available in your language:

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