Learning another language to the point of being self-sufficient in a country where that language is spoken can be one of the most rewarding — yet frustrating — challenges of life abroad. In my case, that second language is French, my husband’s native tongue. The learning curve can be steep depending on where you’re starting.
Maybe you can relate?
Frustrations of living in another language
For the record, my husband’s English has always been better than my French and will always be. From early in our relationship, we fell into the habit of speaking English more often than French and at this point, Tom’s English is extremely fluent and near perfect despite never having lived in an English-speaking country. Although he was just talking to me about a guin-ay-uh-upigg and it took me a few minutes to realize he was mispronouncing guinea pig. 🙂
Anyway, when you live in the country where your second (or 3rd or 4th) language is spoken, it becomes a real necessity to up your level to a point where you can take care of day-to-day interactions without any issues. And if you live outside of a major city? That need becomes even more important because people don’t generally speak any English.
So us foreigners slave away, practicing our pronunciation and conjugations and comprehension skills… making mistakes and fools out of ourselves along the way. Some days are successes and others feel like major failures. But with time, we get to a point where we’re OK with our level and we know how far we’ve come. But even if you become pretty fluent in that other language, it can still be majorly frustrating.
Here’s why it can be frustrating when you’re living in another language:
Your true personality doesn’t come through
After living in a new place and communicating in a new language, it’s easy to feel like people aren’t getting to know the “real” you. Maybe you’re more reserved and quiet in your second language. You observe more than talk. In English, I’m rather outgoing and happy to make conversation with anyone. I have an irreverent sense of humor at times, am quick with comebacks, and if you step out of line, I have no problem telling you as much. But in French? I’m a polite pushover who smiles a little too much and goes overboard on the social niceties.
In French, I feel like I overcompensate a bit for my “otherness.” People know I’m not French so I do my best to do everything right. Speak properly, order food properly and greet people with those dreaded bises. Is it the real me? Yes and no. Luckily, since Tom’s English was so good when we met, he got to know the real me from Day 1, but I can’t help but think his parents see a more frazzled, shorter-fused and less intelligent version of who I really am.
Your sense of humor changes
Our sense of humor can change as we go through life and experience different things and places. Living abroad will do that to you. Little things that might have upset me back in New York make me laugh now. I crack jokes to myself when the post office is closed for no reason or why someone just can’t take care of a simple request for me. I laugh at things that aren’t supposed to be funny. But I did that at home too, so maybe my sense of humor hasn’t shifted THAT much.
Something that I’ve found to be true is that I’m hesitant to make jokes so I make them less often. Will the humor translate? Will I offend someone? Different cultures don’t always find the same things funny.
Will I be fluent in French after living in France for a year? >>
You’re automatically pegged as a foreigner
Unless you’re a language genius or learned the language very young, you probably have some sort of accent in your other language. People will notice this from the minute you open your mouth and sometimes it’s a good thing and other times you’ll feel like an outcast. I know I’ll always have an accent in French even though I’ve come a long way, so now I just embrace it. An accent is NOT a defect. A good day for me is when someone thinks I’m from Germany, Belgium or Quebec! The little wins, guys. 😉
You are slow
Or at least you feel like you are. At times when people are always rushing around and busier than ever, being slow is the last thing you want to be. But it gets better with time and practice. What do I mean by “slow?” Sometimes you get the joke a few seconds after everyone else or you take a little longer to comprehend what’s going on. The ease of conversation doesn’t come as naturally either and maybe you search for words or ways to say exactly what you want to say. Your speech is often at a slower pace than a native speaker’s.
Sometimes it feels like you’re trying to verbally pull yourself through molasses. Another way I feel kind of slow is that I’m not quick-witted in French like I am in English. In my sales job after college in NYC, I could overcome a client’s objections without missing a beat. I always knew what to say when and had comebacks galore. But in French, it’s not the same and when a quick-witted person feels like she’s lost her wit? Not. Fun.
You get easily overwhelmed/stressed/ready to give up
Any life stresses are magnified when you add in language difficulties. Technical conversations with words you don’t know, speaking to someone else with a heavy accent, and following a convo with multiple people in a loud environment can all feel like too much especially on top of an already stressful day.
Sometimes I’ll be mad that I didn’t understand something that was said to me, feel stressed about it for hours after and then snap at Tom — totally not his fault. I know I have a tendency to be sensitive and hard on myself, so the stress of communicating in a language that’s not your own just makes this worse. But every day gets better and it’s so important to reflect on the little strides you’ve made along the way.
You can’t be as precise as you’d like
At times, a word or phrase in your native language just doesn’t translate. You want to say something specific and the language at your disposal just can’t hit home the point you way you want. This is especially true when you’re talking about emotions, but luckily for me Tom speaks English as I mentioned so it hasn’t been a problem for us. Emotions matter the most when you’re talking to your spouse and as long as he understands, we’re good.
But in relationships where the second language is spoken all the time, I can see how frustrating it can become when you can’t be as specific as you’d like. In France, the word “care” is difficult to translate. You can come up with something that expresses the same sentiment but “care” doesn’t exist.
Not being 100% confident
Tom chimed in with this one. Even if you’re great in a foreign language, it’s hard to know if you caught everything that was said. Lingering doubt makes you second-guess what you heard and if there’s background noise or multiple people talking, it’s hard to be sure that you absolutely understood what was being said. Tom explained that while he understands mostly everything, he’ll doubt himself sometimes and wonder if he got everything. Even though I reassure him, it takes time to build up your own confidence.
What about you? What are some of your frustrations of living in another language?
***I highly recommend Lingoda for language learning. Check out my post on Lingoda here!***
Taste of France says
For many of these reasons, I speak English with my husband, and he speaks French. All of our conversations are bilingual. I want to make my argument with precision, without him pointing out that I didn’t correctly conjugate a verb or use the correct tense.
When I joined the school’s PTA, some of the other members treated me as if I were a bit thick, though I think I have more schooling than the entire group together. Between my accent and my grammatical mistakes, they got one impression quickly; it took time for them to understand why I used to be a big lady boss (as far as they knew, I had never worked)–I have great organizational skills.
I was at a dinner with distant relatives of my husband, one of whom is crazy about Italy. I had just taken a trip to Italy and had cooking lessons. One thing we made was tiramisu. He asked for the recipe. I explained. Everybody laughed. Could I repeat it? The table erupted in laughter again–my MIL and SIL had tears running down their cheeks. And again. I stupidly repeated each time that you dip the biscuits (the lady fingers) in coffee then amaretto. Finally, my husband took pity and explained that “tremper le biscuit” is slang for having sex.
Oh boy, what perverts! Hahah, just kidding. I see why they got such a kick out of your story. That’s one way to learn the expression! I hope it was a good recipe. 😉
I’m sorry to hear some of the PTA members treated you badly. It’s a shame people don’t realize how hard it can be to integrate and build a life somewhere new… add on the language and I think we need to be cut some slack. There was a quote I shared on Instagram a while back and it said something like “Be respectful to people with foreign accents. It means they speak another language and that’s pretty cool” or something like that. Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss people because of something as superficial as an accent. Hoping the PTA people are more accepting now! Thx for commenting, as always!
This is just like a few weeks ago when I was telling a story about my brother being allergic to cats….everyone was cracking up at me meanwhile I hadn’t even realized I was pronouncing the ‘T’ on the end of chat!
I’ve never had to do this. Your point about your “true personality” really gave me something to think about. I’m sure that’s true!. Same with the quick witted in English and not so much in the second language. That would be really hard to deal with. I’m very sympathetic and am glad that your husband speaks fluent English – clearly a comfort zone.
Yeah, it’s definitely a slightly different version of yourself even if you have a pretty good command of the language. This reminds me of a convo I had with a good friend of mine who got to a point of fluency the summer after sophomore year of high school after spending a month in France. She spoke Spanish fluentally (since birth) and picked up French really quickly. I asked her one day if there was a magical moment where all of the sudden she became fluent and realized it. Like if one day she woke up and poof, she was fluent. She said no and that it takes time and gradually you just get better and better.
At the time I tried to understand but until you experience it yourself, it’s hard to completely get it. Now I get it. There’s always more to learn, new expressions to pick up, new sets of vocab, different ways of saying things, etc. Some might consider me fluent in French if they observed me (with mistakes of course) but the ease of speaking is far from how I feel about my native tongue. So yea it’s weird to not be the same person in French. I’m me, but as I said in the post I’m probably more smiley and just come across differently. It’s a weird thing. And yes, so lucky that Tom’s language skills are on point. He was very self-motivated! Thanks for your comment!
D’Accord! I feel it is a complement if someone asks if I am Dutch-complement if they say anything except Americaine!
Yup, I totally take it as a compliment too. There’s nothing wrong with an American accent. We’re American after all, but sometimes it’s cool to be mistaken for another nationality.
I would truly suck at living in a non English speaking country as I only speak English so I am always amazed by those who can speak more then one language
It’s never too late to learn, Jo-Anne! Even if you never move to or visit a country where English isn’t spoken, it’s great mentally to push yourself in that way. 😉
a vanderven says
all of the above also apply if you are a french person living in the US…
Yup, of course! Definitely not specific to French. Anyone learning a new language and using it day-to-day is likely to experience some of the things I mentioned as well.
I agree with pretty much everything you say! Although I’m pretty sure Tom isn’t as fluent as you think. After 2 years in the US, I think of myself as fluent. Until I have to go to the doctor, or PT (try to explain what kind of pain you have in a different language, or describe your health history…), or get my car repaired, or all kind of specific situation where day-to-day vocabulary is not enough…
I think the areas I struggle the most are catch up a conversation in the middle, and pick up random jokes. And then, there is all the background you just can’t have. Like you shouldn’t ask an African American to bring watermelon and chicken to a party. Or know what the children of the corn are 😉
Oh absolutely, any situation where a specialized vocabulary is needed, fluency goes out the window. Specific things that are more technical in nature are really hard to describe in another language. Agreed!
And yes, the context and cultural references both play a huge part in overall understanding. I’m always lost on French references to movies or celebs, etc.!
I agree, sometimes I just feel stupider in French, especially if I’m tired or trying to explain something technical. Nothing like going to the doctor and not being able to communicate what kind of pain you’re feeling – it’s hard enough to do that in English! I don’t know if I’ll ever embrace my accent. I hate being judged as a foreigner. People are only allowed to comment on my accent if they call it “petit” and preferably “charmant”!
I got “jolie accent” yesterday. I’ll take it! From the butcher. 😉
Same here. Being French anf leaving in the US is sometimes frustrating when it comes to language. I feel that my sense of humour does not translate well. First, because some topics are considered as not correct here, especially in work environment. But also I’m not as fast and I don’t know as many words in English. So sometimes, by the time I’m ready to tell a joke, the conversations moved to another topic! 🙂
Yeah I know what you mean about the conversation moving on to another topic. By the time I work out what I want to say I’ve missed the moment! Do you use French at work or in an industry that doesn’t depend on French at all? I forget!
Ze Coach says
Nope, not using French at work. I only work with Americans.
annette charlton says
The points you raise are very comprehensive. My French tutor used to say she felt many of these frustrations living here in Australia. She moved from France to Australia to live with her Australian boyfriend.
Yes, I feel like many foreigners living in another language experience a lot of the same things. Maybe not in the same way or at the same time, but we can relate to each other!
Lillian Small says
Oh this is bringing back the bad memories of first learning French. It’s so true about the confidence issue… that was the worst coupled with the fact I had quit my career and couldn’t even explain in English what I was doing with my life, must less in French. It was hard not being able to express myself, my thoughts and true personality. On a funnier side, David tried to joke in French all the time and it never worked! He could not convey sarcasm in his broken French and usually fell flat, having to explain what he meant. lol
Yeah, it really isn’t easy. But it’s always better if there are two of you looking like idiots. Like if I make a joke that falls flat and it’s just me, I just kind of hide but if Tom is there at least he can help with sharing my embarrassment. Strength in numbers! And even though I’ve come a long way, I think I’ll always feel these frustrations at least on some level. You’ll have to tell me how you do with Scottish accents. I know a few Scottish people that come from Edinburgh and no problem, but if someone has a Trainspotting accent, I think I’d rather they spoke French. I have such a hard time understanding!
All this resonates with me so much! We’ve lived in France for 19 years but, although I now consider myself pretty fluent, I have good days and bad days. And it still takes me much longer to write an email in French than in English, what with constantly consulting the dictionary to make sure I have the gender right, etc. One way to learn a language is to have a partner whose native language it is – but I can fully sympathise if you are in the habit of speaking English!
Yup, it’s not like one day something magically clicks and we speak French like pros. It’s a process!
No one EVER guesses that I am Australian but they do know I am not a local :). My French is probably more fluent than my English sometimes after living here since 1975 and my husband says I make fewer mistakes than the French do and believe me, they often make grammar mistakes. I had an American friend who worked on totally losing her accent but then lost all credibility as a native English speaker! I like keeping my otherness. It means that I can do things differently. Don’t sacrifice your real personality to fit into the French mould!
And thank you for hosting this month’s All About France. You’ve done great job – and especially in August.
You’re my hero! You’ve been here 40 years and speak better than the French themselves! Goals.
What you’re saying about otherness makes a lot of sense. We are who we are and it would be a shame to lose that. Integrate as best you can, learn the language, but bottom line is that no one should have to change who they are at their core. Love your comment 😉 Thank you for being here.
I really respect people that speak multiple languages. I tried to learn Spanish unsuccessfully. It takes alot of time and patience!
Stick with it, you may surprise yourself!
Yes, I found these all to be true during our time in France… If anything, they were amplified by the fact that I had my children with – something that already ‘makes me slow’, and has me permanently overwhelmed and stressed! However, it was also an exit strategy – I could always apologize and run away, tossing a quick “desolee, les enfants!” over my shoulder 🙂
Did/do your children speak French? I use my dog as an escape method sometimes so totally know what you mean!
Hi Diane: I can totally relate to everyone of those points. My husband wants to like France, but his French is not at a level that he can truly engage and as a result…frustration, lonely, quick tempered etc. Thanks for posting at least I know we are not alone.
I’m sorry to hear he’s having trouble. It must be really hard for not only him but for you observing what he’s going through. Has he given up or is he still open to improving and really working at it? Hang in there…
Aaarggh! All applying to me. I don’t live in France full time. Feel isolated when I’m there. Too shy to put myself in situations where you have to try to speak French. Normally have a fairly high powered job, but look like an idiot. Great to read these comments from people that have been in the situation longer than me and have succeeded! Thanks for hosting this month 🙂
You’re very welcome, Sally!
It really takes time and a whole lot of motivation and drive (and just brushing bad days off and picking yourself back up) to get to a place where you’re comfortable. It will get better little by little and one day you might surprise yourself.
FrenchVillage Jacqui says
Having a teenager who is fluent after 12 years living here, not being fully fluent (although I get by well) means I don’t always understand his youth speak when he is with his mates. This is not always good!
Oh yes, teenage slang must sound like an entirely different language!
David Alliband says
These all really spoke to me. As a Brit in France this has always been the case for me, particularly feeling slow and having a different personality! It gets better with time but can be extremely frustrating.
Yup, time is really the only thing that helps! And a commitment to getting better.
Tooting Mama says
I totally get this. Though I have only been living in France for 8 months I am still struggling with French. My kids go to a bilingual school and are totally immersed in the language and are streets ahead of me. I describe my French like speaking like a demented toddler. I’m just nouns and verbs!
Yeah, it’s not easy! Some other commenters say even after 10 or more years here, it’s still hard and I believe it! We should all be taught another language (or 2) as kids when it’s so much easier to pick it up naturally.
Phoebe | Lou Messugo says
oh yes; to all your points! Just like you when I met my French husband he spoke excellent English and I didn’t speak French, so we started off in English. Then when we moved to France I had to learn so he slowly swapped to talking in French but I continued replying in Engish. Then along came kids and I talk to them 100% in English for their bilingualism. Add to this I worked as an English teacher and my French will never be on a par with my English, ever. I know that. I also now know I am not a linguist and struggle with foreign langages. I would say I’m fluent but no where near bilingual and find writing in French tough. I really relate to the points about different personality and coming across as thick. Great post Diane and thanks again for stepping into my shoes for #AllAboutFrance
Yeah, writing sucks. I’m lazy with it too so that doesn’t help. Thank you very much for all that you do and you’re very welcome about hosting!
Rosie Hill (@EcoGitesLenault) says
Yes yes yes – I can relate to all of those …. and when I listen to my bilingual boys I know I will never have their French fluidity brought about by being totally immersed in French at schools from a young age. People don’t even know they are English until I open my mouth and let the side down! But I get by in most situations and am not afraid to blurt out what-ever I know to get understood! #AllaboutFrance
Hello! How old are your boys and at what age did they move to France? Do they speak with a slightly accented English now? I love hearing stories of people acquiring a second language and how the transition was and how they have adjusted. Tell me more!
Peter Horrocks says
Good morning Diane
I liked your article and certainly related to some of it.
I’ve worked in France for many years and spoken it lots (though I have no qualification at all) and now I live with my French partner who I consider my second wife. She speaks next to no English. So it’s total French submersion. I’m starting to see benefits now as I’m beginning to read French authors in French and the books are much better for it. Improves my vocab and ability to be more precise and subtle in conversation too. Having read just about everything worth reading in English I’m loving ploughing through all the main French authors. Jules Verne books at the moment. Recommend Levy and Musso for more modern stuff. Surprisingly enjoyable.
Have fun with the lingo…
Awesome, reading French lit is definitely something I don’t do but I’m sure it would absolutely help improve vocab and overall ease in French. Do you and your partner have misunderstandings often? If my husband didn’t speak any English, I think I’d get frustrated a lot because sometimes it’s hard to be precise in French or convey the exact meaning. You’re a brave man! Thanks for your comment!
Peter Horrocks says
Oh yes we have misunderstandings alright. But from very early on we decided to try and identify them early and sort of put a hand up and we established that no ill intent was or would be meant, just “lost in translation”. That helped quash them before they got out of hand. Sometimes she goes all latin on me though… but I kind of like that, it’s quite amusing…
For the reading bit I decided to abandon trying to understand each word and just go for the overall grasp of what is going on. Every now and then if a word repeats that I don’t get like “ronronnement” which Levy uses a lot talking about background noise from cars, then I look it up quickly on google translate, putting a bit of the sentence in too. I found it a good way to get some momentum into reading, avoiding stopping too often.
Nothing brave about me, I just ignore the rules and the grammar and all that and go for it. Starting on books like Levy and Musso really helped as they are so contemporary with interesting stories which draw you in so it’s not so hard. It’s taken years for me to start reading in French as previously it was with boring language teachers plodding through the likes of Pagnol. Wish I’d started much this way earlier…
Enjoy your Christmas
Keith Van Sickle says
After six months of living in Switzerland, where we didn’t speak the language (French), my wife turned to me and said, “I used to be competent.” That pretty much sums it up!
But we persevered and now live in France part-time. I speak pretty good French and don’t worry about being misunderstood. I’m not as articulate as in English but I’m ok. I find that French people are forgiving and understanding – they appreciate that I’ve learned their language, one they are very proud of.
What still gets me are the cultural references, like to things that happened when we were kids. Who ever heard of the Shadoks? But that’s just one more opportunity to learn, and a fun one.
Yes, I can so relate. While living in the US, I thought I was being really funny with sarcasm and irony but it just didn’t translate well and people thought I was just mean lool
Thank you for this. I had a horrible day at work and felt really down when I found your article. Not France, but a neighbouring country. Today was just an endless stream of customers asking me question after question (all of which I knew the precise answer to, which makes it even more frustrating!) and not one could understand me. I’m sure you know that look they give you, like you have two heads and both of them are speaking in tongues. I wish they could know how chatty and funny people think I am in English! People used to say I was intelligent! Most of my coworkers are nice, but they think of me as a “little mouse”. My friends in the US would laugh so hard at the absurdity of it if they heard anyone call me this. No one in this country but my husband knows my “real self”; I’ve lived here 4 years.
The mask makes it even worse. I can’t even emote sufficiently to smoothe over the awkward exchanges that arise as a result of speaking with a cloth over your mouth. I feel near constantly humiliated by my lack of proficiency. I’m not sure what to do. According to a few certificates I have, I should be speaking at a native level. But when it comes to speaking in real life, all these little pieces of paper are forgotten and I can barely string together a simple sentence.
Hi there, so sorry to hear about your bad day. I know how demoralizing that can be. The masks make normal conversation so much more difficult, even in English, so I feel your pain there. Sending you a virtual hug. Hang in there….
I just wanted to say thanks for writing this, I came across this piece completely by accident and it was like i was reading my own thoughts. I moved to Germany 4 years ago from the UK to my Wife’s home town, she speaks fluent English but was easier for lots of reasons for me to move here even though not many people speak English here. I know speaking German at home would improve things but the conversation would be so slow we’d never actually have time to sleep! I’ve never been good with languages and I at most ‘get by’ , I’m told my German isn’t that bad but they don’t know I find it a constant daily struggle, it’s exhausting. I, like you, in English am a fairly confident, quick witted person, always able to get my point across even in the most difficult situations, here though, I’m quiet, boring and appear to be not very intelligent or interesting because the real me is hidden behind the very high wall that is the Language barrier. In situations where someone talks down to you because they didn’t have all the facts, I would easily be able to defend myself in England, here though I just apologize and smile because it’s easier than struggling in German, not the real me at all. Equally frustrating is that with my colleagues and German family I appear to have absolutely no sense of humour, it only exists at home with my Wife and during facetime with my loved ones back in the UK.
Hi Michelle, thank you for your comment. I totally get how you feel and everything you say is valid. The part about you appearing to have no sense of humor is so relatable because we’re definitely not the same in our non-native language(s), especially at first. Hang in there as best you can and just know you aren’t alone. 😉
I just came across this post.. thank you Diane for writing this. You really well expressed what I’ve held for long. I’m from Japan, living oversea for 11yrs (Singapore for 6yrs then the US for 5yrs now). Challenges in language come with cultural adjustment, and that process involves many factors out of my control such as people surrounding me, visa status, and… luck, which sometimes makes me overwhelmed and feel like giving up. But, I felt a little lighter after reading this today. I’ll keep working on to overcome. Again thank you for writing this 🙂