The Song Of My People: The Expat’s Guide to Foreign Language

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

About Glenn Kaufmann

I'm an American freelance writer, photographer, and web publisher. I specialize in writing about travel, food, arts, and culture. I also write dramatic scripts for stage and screen. I'm based in Ireland.
This entry was posted in Emigrant/Immigrant Life, Health Care, Immigration & Emigration, International Moving, Irish Life & Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Song Of My People: The Expat’s Guide to Foreign Language

  1. brilliant post Glenn – thanks!

  2. Jenny says:

    It’s as much begrudgery as it is not wanting anyone to get above themselves, or “get ideas above their station”. And I also noticed the US spelling of neighbour 😉 It’s not just the spoken language that is different.

    • Hi Jenny,

      Thanks for reading the blog, and thanks in particular for taking time to contribute your thoughts.
      It does seem “not getting above your station” is a big part of Irish society. So it does make sense that the begrudgery would come out of that.

      Thanks for drawing that link.

      And, yes, the language gap is more than just spoken language.


  3. N says:

    Jenny, I think that’s the age old discussion of…..Webster English dictionary versus The Oxford English dictionary.

    I think that debate will come to the fore more frequently in this computer age as there’s more written trans-atlantic communic (emails). People will write and speak American English as opposed to British. The article gives an Irish example……”Your one is giving out”….try explain that across the Atlantic or the Irish Sea.

    I was taught British English in skoo-il in Duberlin and speak w a lot of Americanisims from living Stateside. I’m comfortable w that and laugh when Irish people ‘correct’ my Americanisim w The Queens English……”I’m not British so why talk like that”.

  4. Rob Klepper says:

    So what the heck DOES “your one is giving out” mean???

    • Rob,

      Thanks for reading the blog, and taking the time to weigh in. I’m glad you asked.

      “Your one” is the female equivalent of “Yer man”, which is Irish slang for “that guy”. But in the case of “Your one” it often indicates a “hard woman”.

      And “giving out” means complaining loudly.

      We had a weird run in with “giving out” when we first moved here. Our dog was acting kind of sick, so we took her to the vet. We go in, and Fiona (the dog) is whining a bit, and the vet comes in and proceeds to look her over. After a few moments he tells us “she’s giving out”. And, of course, coming from the U.S. (where “giving out” means something is dying) our response was “My God”, she wasn’t THAT sick when we brought her in.”

      Eventually it was explained to us that, our dog was not in fact dying, just complaining quite vocally.


  5. Caro says:

    I’ve just moved to Dublin and started reading your blog. My native tongue is Spanish. The English I learned at the University (I’m a translator) was Oxford Dictionary Based. I have been working for American companies for the last 15 years. That’s to say my accent is more American than Brit. I am trying to adapt fast to this changing environment and cannot stop laughing about my constant blunders. If language is a badge of honour then I guess I am blessed to have so many 🙂

    • Hi Caro,

      Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment and contribute to the discussion.

      I applaud your language skills. I’m terrible at languages. I think that will prove to be a blessing.


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