“Lost in Translation”: Being in a multilingual environment

You don’t have to be an expat these days to be surrounded by languages other than your own. With the world as our oyster today, people are traveling and relocating abroad, making for a beautiful, multicultural mixing pot.

Along with that, comes the vast array of different languages spoken, which can sometimes bring some challenges. Married to a Frenchman, I was raised in Belgium and spent the last 13 years in Australia before ‘expating’ around.  As a result, our daughter (and dog) are being raised with 3 languages as well as hearing the local Chinese dialect on a daily basis. It’s going quite well, although on some days, swapping between languages can often result in them forming into one weird combo-language, which makes me sound as if I’m speaking in tongues..

I most certainly am not an expert in linguistics, but I thought to share a few things I picked up along the way:

1) Never get too cocky too soon… take your time learning a new language (or you’ll end up in a Polish bar ordering two ‘prostitutes’ rather than the two ‘Piwo’ (beers) you really wanted… very awkward moment.)

2) I find when someone is speaking to you in a language that is not their native tongue, it’s important to be appreciative that they are making this effort, regardless of the mistakes they make or the thick accent they may have.

3) Although they say that human communication consists of 93 percent body language (while only 7% of consists of words themselves), body language isn’t everything and culture can still play a big part in how we perceive what someone else is saying. This was apparent when our neighbors used to think we were fighting whenever mom called us down for dinner (apparently the Flemish language is not kind on strangers’ ears) or when and old Chinese lady started frantically waving her arms at my friend and yelling in Cantonese (which afterwards, a friendly passer-by informed us, she was merely telling us how excited she was to meet Westerners). 

4) I don’t believe that the rule should be ‘whichever country you are in, theirs is the only language you must speak’ (That would have put me in quite a pickle on many holidays, if that were the case..). I appreciate that when one relocates to another country, it is beneficial to learn (or at least try and learn) the local language, but if someone wants to speak their native tongue at home or with their fellow countrymen, I don’t see the big deal and if anything, trying to learn some new words (especially the naughty ones) is always fun.

5) Going on from point (4), I do feel it is important however, that when you are in a group with a mix of people from different countries (and thus, different languages) you make sure people don’t feel too excluded and offer to translate if the situation calls for it.

6) Always be weary that when you are abroad speaking your own language, that does not mean people won’t understand what you are saying. A lesson learned by the Dutch family complaining about the wait staff at the Australian restaurant I worked in, spending the entire evening poking fun at us (including my shoes… a weird focus point but ok)… it felt good, at the end of the evening, to thank them and welcome them back anytime (in perfect Dutch of course).

7) If someone is telling you off in a language you don’t understand and any efforts made to try and find a mutual understanding are futile, by all means you let them have it in your own words as well . (Not something that has actually happened to me, but a scenario I have imagined when having made-up arguments in the shower).

8) When drinking alcohol, it is miraculous how, after a few pints, you can often understand someone when you don’t even speak the same language… because ‘drunk’ seems to be a universal language spoken by many.  This can also apply to various accents (when I share a beer with an Irishmen or a Scot, I genuinely come to find things ‘grand’ and ‘to be sure t’be good to have another pint’). Same goes for my husband who, after watching two back-to-back episodes of ‘The Wire’, will walk around the house calling everything a ‘motherf*ker’ for the better part of an hour.

I can go on for days with examples, but with this I bid you adieu, farewell, auf wiedersehen, ciao, au revoir, tot ziens, ma’a as-salāmah (and I can seriously just keep on Google-ing here….

03_12_09_small(pic: englishhub.com)


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