Friday, 11 April 2014

What Picture do we Paint of Ourselves Living Life in a Second Language?

What picture do you paint of yourself living life
in a second language?
Can your true self ever really shine through if you are constantly communicating in a language that is not your mother tongue? It's a question that I've given a lot of thought to during my time living overseas. I've even written on this topic before. (See "How do you say me?" on Expat Harem). I'm not talking about expats who spend a couple of years in a country and then move on, but those of us that have moved overseas to be with a partner for example, who don't have an end date to their overseas assignment. Those of us who live our daily lives in a foreign language.

Think about it. The situations where not speaking the local language fluently can give someone the wrong impression about you are infinite. Someone tells you of a bereavement but you don't have the words to tell them how sorry you are, you cannot express the depth of your sympathy in their language. You can't comfort them in the way you would like, the vocabulary just isn't there, like it would be in your mother tongue. Do you come across as uncaring or cold, whilst actually your heart aches for them?

You can't tell your favourite anecdote with the descriptive words and detail you'd like, the one that reveals so much about you. You can't get that punch line out, tell that joke in a way that shares so accurately your sense of humour. Do you seem distant and humourless whilst the truth is you'd love to be able to share a little more of yourself and you're actually amusing to be around?

I'm pretty sure that I sometimes (read often) come across as a bit of a klutz to my in-laws. There are times I cannot get the right Dutch words to my tongue in time during a conversation and the result must be that I seem disinterested or that I have no opinion. The truth is I have an opinion on most things, but I can't always express them in an intelligent manner in Dutch. When I add something in the midst of a conversation with my Dutch family it sounds like a five year old suddenly piped up and said something. I've been here so long in the Netherlands now I wonder how much of an allowance they make for me. How much of my awkward communication do they put down to me speaking in a language not my own, and how much do they attribute to who I am, or their view of who I am.

How, in our interactions with others, do we reveal the real us? It is of course not just verbal. We show a lot through our body language (which incidentally can also be a cultural nest of vipers) and the actions we undertake. Putting your arms around someone can say much more than any words at a difficult time. There are ways to show feelings without having the words at our command. However, I do believe that you need a certain level language ability in order to let the real you shine through, to share your depth and let another person in to your inner world.

It's the reason why my husband and I end up having dual language conversations when the subject matter is complicated or emotionally highly charged - so that we can truly explain how we feel without stumbling around looking for words in a second language, a process that waters our emotions and feelings down, unconciously making some things seem more trivial to the other than the reality.

It's the reason why professionals recommend that any coaching or therapy you have is done in your mother tongue.

It's the reason why so many expats complain making friends with the locals is hard. How deep can a friendship be when one of you is always communicating in a language that is learned?

That's not to say a relationship or friendship conducted in two languages doesn't work. Far from it. We are living proof that they do work. We develop our own way of communicating with each other. It works. But it takes time, it takes understanding, it means making allowances and giving the benefit of the doubt. All of which are not givens when you are meeting new people, developing new relationships, trying to let others who know nothing about you see a glimpse of your personality, when what they hear is someone tripping over their words in a  language that they clearly have not made their own.

Does it matter whether people here in the Netherlands ever know me as I was back in my passport country? Is there a pre-expat me and an expat me? Am I a different person when I talk in Dutch? Is the English-speaking me the real version of me? I don't know.

What I do know for sure is that I am more reserved in Dutch than in English because my Dutch vocabulary doesn't stretch as far as my English. I have less to say in a Dutch crowd than in an English group. There is currently a gap between the two personas. And I wonder if it will ever change. And I know that it does matter, at least to me.


  1. Thanks for this post. It is something that I think a lot about, especially in circumstances where the only language is Dutch. Sometimes I hate that I don't come across intelligent or competent and that I sound like a 4-year old and other times I try to remember it is good to feel that way because there are a lot of people struggling to be professional and competent in English. And since English is my native language I am often at a huge advantage. It gives me empathy I suppose because now I don't judge others as fast.

    I also think we will always be a little different in another language. Language is so heavily contextualized in culture that the ways of expression will always be different. As a teenager I was very fluent in Spanish and in a way I was a different person in that language because the culture of the language was so different. You understand what I mean?

    Okay, sorry this was little longer than I intended!

  2. Take heart my friend, there will be a day when you realise that Dutch word does discribe exactly what you feel. There will be a day when not only can you say something is green, but you can say it is light green with a blueish shine to it.
    One day your heart will be able to speak Dutch as well. There will be English words that creep in (they do in my Dutch and I am born and bred here) but nobody will mind.

    There will always be people who look beyond the language and look at you. They will take time to listen to YOU (not your language). It won't be everyone (and it may not be the one you would most want to) but these people will listen you into confidence you need to learn even more Dutch.

    I admire everyone who makes the effort to speak our difficult language. I know it is hard work (having learned 2 other heart languages I know it is very hard work).

    Just remember:
    Op een dag spreekt je hart ook Nederlands

  3. This is something I found an answer to: I'm my real self with people I share with all the languages I know and I can just switch from one to the other without trying to make them understand what I mean in any of the other languages. I only have 2 people I can do this: it's my sister and my husband ;-)
    But when I have to talk only one at the time, I adapt my language, the register etc. to the context and yes, I feel like there is a part of me that can't really "get out", but that's not a problem. When we are in a meeting we don't just talk about our family or our feelings (unless that's the topic of the meeting). And the same way we choose the right language etc. when we talk to different people. My friends say though that I talk differently and act differently depending on the language I talk, but that is due to the different context every language requires (low context, high context) and the body language (when I talk Italian for example, or when I talk another language with my Italian friends, I know I can use some body language: they'll understand).
    And I agree with Ilja DeYong: when our heart speaks the language, when it comes very naturally, we find the right words. We'll not think about what to say because words will just flow.

  4. I agree with Ilja DeYoung. It will take more time. But it will happen. English will always be your native language. But living in NL with a Dutch husband and kids in the Dutch education system moments will come when you find you can express something in Dutch but really wonder, 'how do you say that in English?'

    If you want to speed it up, read more Dutch (a daily paper), listen to Nederland 1, maybe even watch Dutch TV. (Oops. Three small children, no time for all of that, I know.)

  5. I suspect being 40+ when I moved here didn't help. Unlike a 20-something, I've been "me" for a lot longer. I had to take more steps backwards than someone who is new to his or her career or is still searching for his or her path in life.

    Being older (especially with no little kids) also limits my social interactions, especially since I was made redundant and can't get a foot back in the workplace. "Peers" are hard to find as they have their life-long friends and kids and grandkids and parents and coworkers to keep them busy, and probably haven't used English for a long time, unlike younger people.

    Beyond asking for "tasjes" and the occasional "goedemorgen" and "bedankt", I rarely use what baby Dutch I have. "Passive Dutch" like reading newspapers or watching TV is no replacement really.

    After 10 years here, few Dutch people know me at all except as somebody's wife. "Me" has become the person who has learned to enjoy solitary activities just to keep sane and potentially (hopefully) employable.

    I'm less depressed by this than it sounds, that being said! I've stopped beating myself up because I can't be like everybody else and I'm more at peace with myself. A sense of humour and supportive spouse helps!

  6. Very wise words, Ilja DeYoung. I will remember your comments when I'm struggling!!