For anyone traveling overseas, speaking the local language is not just useful, but may well save his or her life. For expats and immigrants, threading the needle of “becoming a local” (if that’s even possible) involves picking up not just the local language, but absorbing local inferences and the subtleties of place.
But for the expat we also have to not only learn a new language with all that that entails, we have to overcome the stereotypes and distinctions made about us the minute we open our mouths. Language is a badge of honor and an instant identifier that follows us wherever we go.
Across the street from our Dublin home there is a pharmacy (a chemist, or drugstore if you like). For the past three years I’ve gone into this busy shop maybe twice a month. Yet they always know me by first name. A lifelong learned reflex always led me to think, “It must be my handicap.” I’m sure that they remember me as, “Glenn, the disabled guy.” Imagine my surprise when, after three years, I discovered that they knew me for my “other” disability. It turns out the thought running through their head was, “ Oh, he’s Glenn, that American guy.” As emigrants/immigrants, and later expats, the moment we speak we are from elsewhere, and we bear the full weight of those associations, both good and bad.
When the choice was made to move to Ireland, my wife and I felt that it was a way to live overseas, and, “mostly” not have to deal with a language barrier. We joked that Ireland, and the U.S. are two countries separated by a common language. And while that is mostly not true, it is true in more ways than we could possibly have imagined.
Arriving in a country where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language, chances are you will have done a bit of research or at least picked up a phrase book. But imagine your surprise stepping off the boat, hearing and recognizing every word, and understanding none of it.
“Yes, it is English, but….”
What the hell does, “Your one is giving out” mean?
The Irish like to refer to themselves a, “a nation of begrudgers”. And while it’s one thing to know what the words mean, you really can’t fathom the nationalistic depths of that statement until you live amongst the Irish for an extended length of time, and begin to realize that Irish self-deprecation is not just pub sport, but a national pastime in which they begrudge none so much as themselves.
Language, in that uniquely Irish context, divides us and demands an investment of time before we can fully understand where we live and those around us. Clearly language can define one’s life and experiences. But can language save a life?
Years ago, when my wife and I were traveling in China, I came down with a terrible case of “traveler’s stomach” in Beijing. In the morning, after a long night of cramps, my wife ventured out to find a pharmacy and some help for me. Arriving in a small shop she approached the counter and, in her best broken Mandarin said, “My man is pain”. The women in the shop looked at her as if to say, “Yeah honey, ours too. But we don’t sell drugs for that.”
After about five minutes of trying unsuccessfully to reconcile American traveler’s Chinese and the real thing, my wife left and came back to find me curled in a ball on the bed, but clutching the number of a clinic recommended by the U.S. Embassy. A few hours later we went to the hospital and I had my terribly infected appendix removed. Now imagine if my wife had spoken the local language and been given some kind of remedy for cramps. I would gladly have swallowed it and, thinking I was on the road to recovery, headed further inland on our trip, far from quality medical care.
That’s one instance where not speaking the language probably saved a life (or at least prevented serious complications), but knowing the dominant language of your destination is not just useful, it’s culturally sensitive, and, for the immigrant, a crucial first step towards fitting in as a good neighbor. Yet we should never assume that rote language skills are enough to carry the day. They help, and often give us just enough to “fake it til we make it” and begin to learn something about our new home.
Ultimately, language is both the poison pill and the silver bullet of travel, migration (emigration and immigration), and expat life. The minute we open our mouths we are labeled. And the minute we open our mouths we see how the world reacts to us, and begin the process of learning something new.
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
- “Play The Skins” – Living abroad allows you to become someone “new” for a while.
- Renting Abroad, Home Maintenance and Property Management in a Foreign Country