An exchange program allowed me to move to his city for a semester and we agreed that it would be best for me to live with him – not only would we save money, of which I have very little, but we’ve already basically lived together during our visits (with his school and work schedules he can sometimes come and visit me for a month or more). I have been moved in for a month, and though I still love waking up to my boyfriend every morning, I am starting to regret this decision for one big reason: the language barrier.
My boyfriend is from a country where only 5 million people in the world speak his language, so nearly everyone under the age of thirty here speaks English (he is fluent). Though I will take language classes to learn his native tongue (the classes start next week), I am unable to say little more than “thank you” and “good-bye” as there are no classes or tutors for this slightly obscure language in my city in the States. Right now I can only speak to others in English. Yet, when his friends are around, they refuse to speak in English.
They claim, according to my boyfriend, that they cannot sufficiently express themselves in English to carry on a conversation about complicated matters. If I believed this were the case, then I would let it go; however, discussing actors, the movie that my boyfriend and I went to see last night, or the festival going on down the street is not the same as discussing the finer points of current stock market fluctuation. I know that, with a little effort, his friends can talk about casual topics in English, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask them to exert a little in order to include me in those parts of the conversation.
When I begin university in a few days, I’ll begin to form my own circle of friends, pursue my own studies, and, in effect, begin creating my own life here. In spite of this upcoming change, this past month has opened my eyes to how the future could possibly play out and I don’t want to dismiss these feelings. If my boyfriend is content to keep his life as it was when I lived across the Atlantic, meaning to treat me as though I don’t exist when I’m in a room with him and a friend or two, then what will the future hold?
My relationship with my boyfriend is very important to me, and I want to give it more time before calling it quits just because I am incapable of interacting with any of his friends. I am trying to come up with a solution to this problem, and have thought of two. The first is to speak in English when I think I know what’s being talked about and have something to say. The other solution would be moving out on my own. In this way, I can find myself in this new place on my own terms and he can have friends over without causing me to silently question whether I want to stay committed to a relationship where I feel like an accessory at best and invisible at worst while in company. I am hesitant to do this partly because of the money issue and mostly because I feel that I am merely delaying the inevitable and that at some point we will only have to deal with this issue again.
Basically, the already complicated matter of merging our lives after a long distance relationship is further complicated by language. Do I need time to adjust? Do I need to stand up for myself more? Do I need to take action? I’m at a loss as to what to do. — Lost in a Language Barrier
So, let me get this straight: you moved to a foreign country — a move, I’m guessing, you probably planned for at least a few months and to a place where you boyfriend of two years is from — and you only bothered to learn two words of the local language before you got there and yet it’s your boyfriend’s friends who aren’t exerting enough effort to make you feel included?? This is exactly why Americans have an international reputation for being so self-centered and entitled! It’s not the job of your boyfriend’s friends to speak your language in their country. It’s your job to learn theirs (and your excuse about no classes in the States is lame. With the amount of language books and computer programs, not to mention the best resource — your boyfriend — there’s no excuse for you to not have learned more than two words by now). Did you ever think that while you were silently fuming at everyone for not including you in their conversations about movie stars, they were appalled by your complete and utter lack of even the tiniest effort to learn their language? While you’ve been judging them for excluding you, don’t think they haven’t been judging you for your behavior. It’s your responsibility to assimilate. And while your boyfriend should certainly be helping you in that transition — starting with the obvious: teaching you a few words of his language, my god! — and switching to English in group conversations to include you more (or translating for you), the brunt of the responsibility really falls on your shoulders.
The good news here is that you’re beginning language classes next week and you have at least a semester to continue feeling things out. As tempting as it may be to cocoon yourself in a clique of other American/English-speaking exchange students, resist that urge. Don’t move out on your own, but instead, take the next few months to truly immerse yourself in the culture of your boyfriend’s home country. Learn to cook some of the dishes, acquaint yourself with the traditions and customs, learn how to get around by yourself, and speak the language as much as you can — even if it’s just ordering lunch in a deli or asking for directions. So often, foreigners who speak English fluently are much more willing to do so when they see that others are making an effort to speak their language (especially when those people are actually visiting/living in their home country!). It’s a respect thing. Show respect for the culture — including the language — of the country you’re in, and the locals will show you the same respect. Expect everyone to bow down to you because you’re an American or because you’re a native English-speaker, and don’t be shocked when you get the silent treatment in return.
In a nutshell: the more you can learn about the place your boyfriend is from and how well you fit in it, the better prepared you’ll be to make a decision about your long-term future together. Make an effort and it will pay off. Expect everyone else to make the effort instead, and you’ll be screwed.
*If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, send me your letters at [email protected] and be sure to follow me on Twitter.
milli August 23, 2011, 7:23 am
Very good advice Wendy!
6napkinburger August 23, 2011, 1:33 pm
To be fair though, some people have a really really really hard time with languages.
I’ve taken 6 languages through my life and speak 1(and it’s english). (I had to keep switching them in school once they got too hard, as they were killing my gpa and generally making my life miserable …I even tried switching to a new one with my sister so she could help, and she’s practically fluent and i can barely order food in a mexican restaurant). I went abroad for 4 months, did rosetta stone religiously beforehand, emersed myself as much as I could and still could only barely talk to shopkeepers. I travelled around a middle eastern country for over a month and couldn’t even speak to shopkeepers, though i tried and had studied that language off and on for my whole life (I can sound out words, but have no idea what they mean).
My point is, some people’s brains just aren’t wired that way. I would need my future possible husband to make accommodations for my useless language brain, and I would think it reflects badly on him if he doesn’t. It’s not necessarily that selfish.
6napkinburger August 23, 2011, 1:57 pm
To all of those in NY— did you just feel that?
6napkinburger August 23, 2011, 2:01 pm
No seriously, I think NYC just had an earthquake.
Maracuya August 23, 2011, 2:24 pm
cmarie August 23, 2011, 2:04 pm
DC just had an earthquake
haggith August 23, 2011, 2:07 pm
just read it was in virginia
Maracuya August 23, 2011, 2:15 pm
A 5.6 about 130km outside of DC.
Wendy August 23, 2011, 2:23 pm
I felt it here in Brooklyn and it scared the shit out of me. Lasted about 30-45 seconds and the floors rocked, the bottles and glasses on the shelves clanked against each other, and the frames on the walls all moved back and forth. Hope everyone’s ok!
6napkinburger August 23, 2011, 2:43 pm
I’m on the 43 floor of an office building in midtown… and was PEEING! worst “where were you?” answer ever…
(I am being lighthearted, as CNN is reporting zero injuries and no property damage. if that changes, so will my tone.)
ReginaRey August 23, 2011, 2:37 pm
I live in VA, outside of DC. It was so odd! All of a sudden the floor moved under us and the walls were rattling pretty loudly. It was over very quick, but almost an hour later everyone in my office is still talking about it. No one’s bothering to work! haha
Wendy August 23, 2011, 2:39 pm
It’s definitely been distracting!
artsygirl August 23, 2011, 4:51 pm
Ick that is always so off putting. I was in Chicago when we had one in 2008. I thought the boiler in the basement exploded when it happened. Happy everyone is ok!
Lydia August 23, 2011, 7:30 am
I also can’t help but wonder how you’ve been there for an entire month yet have been unable to pick up more of the language. And as a European myself, I’m pretty much dying to know what country/language this is all about.
Christy August 23, 2011, 7:53 am
Lydia, were the issue to come up in conversation, would you introduce yourself as European, or as the demonym of your home country? I ask because it seems a little strange to describe the LW’s boyfriend as European, since he is in fact from a country. It’s not like being Ukrainian is much at all like being Portuguese. Just wondering.
anonymous August 23, 2011, 8:22 am
I thought the same thing. Wendy’s advice is spot-on. There’s NO EXCUSE for not learning more. My daughter had the chance to go to Latvia, Estonia, Sweden, and Denmark on a tour this summer. Before she went, she was able to learn many useful words/phrases online. And during her trip? When her new friends were speaking in their language, she listened hard (which helped her understand a bit more), smiled, and was pleasant. She came home after only 2 weeks understanding many, many more words than she’d started with.
sia August 23, 2011, 8:41 am
This is another thing that makes certain americans seem entitled and a little navel-gazing, even. From my days as an exchange student, I remember plenty of fellow high-schoolers who earnestly believed that Europe was, in fact, a single country. I realize that the cause for those poor geographic skills were far more complex than simply arrogance/ignorance, but that’s unfortunately how it comes across.
Lydia August 23, 2011, 8:50 am
I would definitely introduce myself as Dutch and really only said European instead of Dutch in my original comments because the LW did so as well. It did strike me as odd that she didn’t even identified the country her boyfriend is from and just refers to Europe.
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 8:57 am
It may have been an attempt to anonymize her letter…
sweetleaf August 23, 2011, 9:08 am
I thought the same thing demoiselle, but I am very curious where this guy is from. hmm.
LTC039 August 23, 2011, 9:57 am
My guess is Italy. It’s a language that is really only spoken in Italy… Everyone in Holland speaks English on their own accord, so I doubt she’d have any issues there.
Lydia August 23, 2011, 10:38 am
Italian is hardly an obscure language though, and spoken by far more than 5 million people. Even Dutch has more than thrice that many native speakers.
LTC039 August 23, 2011, 11:29 am
I meant that Italian is only really used in Italy. There are no other countries in the world where Italian is used as a native language. & I say that because I went to both Italy & Amsterdam. In Amsterdam they don’t want you to speak Dutch, they get offended bc they think it’s an insult to their intelligence that you assume they don’t know English. I never once encountered someone in Amsterdam who didn’t automatically approach me in English. Italian I’ve been dying to learn, but I’ve been told it’d be more useful to learn French or German bc those languages are more widely used that Italian. Everyone on this threads needs to relax x’s 10000.
Lydia August 23, 2011, 11:48 am
While it is true that it is really only spoken in Italy, it doesn’t match any of the descriptions in the LW’s letter.
Also, as someone from the Netherlands, I have to tell you that your experiences in Amsterdam do not necessarily apply to the rest of the country. Amsterdam is very much a multi-cultural, international city that relies heavily on tourists and expats. The English proficiency is relatively higher than in other cities (and even then it is strongly dependent on the socio-economic status and education of whoever you’re speaking to.)
LTC039 August 23, 2011, 11:54 am
Well I can’t argue with you there… I was only in Brussels for a couple of hours, but regardless my experiences in the Netherlands were wonderful. I guess I underestimated Italy, but that’s the first thing that came to mind when I read her letter, however, I am sure there are for more than 5 million people in Italy…
El August 23, 2011, 12:37 pm
My gigantic Italian-American family begs to differ. I have several family members who have never set foot on Italian soil, but we still use the language pretty frequently at home.
Riefer August 23, 2011, 1:46 pm
Italian’s also the main language in the south-east region of Switzerland, and is classed as one of the four official languages of Switzerland, so it’s not restricted to Italy.
I’m wondering if it’s somewhere like Croatia or Slovakia. Maybe even Belgium… how many people speak Flemish?
Lydia August 23, 2011, 2:51 pm
I didn’t know that, thanks for the info!
Flemish isn’t technically a language, but a dialect of Dutch (23 million native speakers, 28 million worldwide, according to Wikipedia). And even if you would classify it as a language, there are still around 6 million native speakers.
Emily August 23, 2011, 4:25 pm
I was thinking maybe it could be Luxembourgish? I lived in Luxembourg for a semester and no one there really spoke it (people pretty much just used French or German) but my host family, who was older, would speak it all the time at home. Just one other possibility 🙂
theattack August 23, 2011, 2:23 pm
It’s also easy to learn Italian in America. Go to pretty much any university and there are Italian classes. I really want to know what the language is too…
Coree Brown (@Coree_Brown) August 23, 2011, 6:17 pm
My vote is Norwegian, courtesy of Wikipedia.
sohara August 23, 2011, 11:25 am
I wondered if he might be Basque. My godson studied Basque in Barcelona (and, IIRC, Andorra) and I think there are relatively few speakers.
Genevieve August 23, 2011, 4:06 pm
Danish- one of a few countries with native language of 5 million speakers! Has got to be!
MJ August 23, 2011, 9:09 am
She probably wanted to keep some of the identifying details private.
Emsz August 23, 2011, 5:47 pm
I wouldn’t introduce myself as European either, because really, there is no such thing as European. Culture/customs vary greatly from east to west, north to south.
haggith August 23, 2011, 5:54 pm
who would describe him/herself with the whole continent instead of his/her country? answer: “americans”
Emsz August 23, 2011, 6:05 pm
I giggled reading that 😛
JK August 24, 2011, 8:25 am
So true! As a “South American” it always bugs me when people from up north do that!!!
Morgan August 23, 2011, 8:37 am
Agree. You’ve been living with a native speaker of this language FOR.A.MONTH and you still only speak 2 words? Make your boyfriend speak to you in that language. It’ll be harder at first, sure, but you’ll pick it up, because the incentive of, you know, being able to talk to the man you want to spend the rest of your life with, should be enough. Seriously, I did a homestay in a country where I spoke the formal language (and spoke is a little generous a term, not the point though) but not a lick of the dialect that my family spoke. Was I fluent by the end? No, not really. Was I fluent enough to chat it up with the nice street vendor and his adorable daughter every day? Yes. You’re in this country to learn about this language and culture, right? Believe me, I understand that with so many people speaking English worldwide, its very easy to use English as a crutch. Don’t let yourself.
SPOILER ALERT: (Stop, go watch Love Actually, then come back)
You know that part of Love Actually where Colin Firth learns portugese for her and then he says all those garbled phrases asking her to marry him, but its really sweet because even if he screwed it up a bit he made an effort for her? Yeah. Make the effort.
TheOtherMe August 23, 2011, 8:57 am
I watch “Love Actually”” every year, by myself, the week before Christmas 🙂
heidikins August 23, 2011, 1:03 pm
It’s my Christmas morning tradition. Such a great movie! 🙂
JK August 24, 2011, 8:27 am
One of my favourite movies ever, on cable here they play it several times a year, always followed by “The Holiday”, another favourite!
Morgan August 24, 2011, 8:46 am
I love the Holiday!! Such a Christmas must watch.
El August 23, 2011, 10:16 am
I love Wiki.
European languages with roughly 5 million worldwide speakers:
Slovak, Finnish, Danish, Sicilian, and Norwegian.
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 10:33 am
Of course, the LW might be underestimating the number of speakers, too, as Caroline inadvertently did with Hungarian (12.6 million) below. Anyway, it doesn’t matter how few people speak a language–that doesn’t relieve the “responsibility” of learning some when it’s your partner’s native tongue. In fact, the rarer the language, the more it will mean to learn it, and the harder the native speakers may cling to it (preservation of a rare culture).
leotheshark August 24, 2011, 12:43 am
I really agree with the idea that if it’s rare, it might mean the native speakers would want to preserve it more. Plus, hopefully, if the LW is studying abroad there she has some interest in the culture and language . She might feel more uncomfortable because of meeting her bf’s friends as well as being in a new environment, but she shouldn’t use that as a reason to withdraw from these experiences, seize them and learn as much as possible even if you feel you’re making a fool of yourself!I’m sure that she’ll end up with better memories of the experience if she embraces as much as she can.
(Honestly, I’m kinda obsessed with languages myself. It’s been a dream of mine to learn a certain native american language which only has 500 people who speak it, no idea how to even start on that 🙁
SemanticAntics August 23, 2011, 4:37 pm
Based on her revelation that only 5 million people speak the language, I’d venture a guess and say that country could be Finland. I’ve been there myself, and as a native English speaker I have to say the language is very difficult to pick up. But I agree she should try harder nonetheless.
savannah August 23, 2011, 8:04 am
I agree with the majority of what wendy said and I’m also going to add this: It seems as if you looked at this semester move as 100% ‘time to spend with your boyfriend’ and not necessarily ‘studying abroad’. If you thought about it more as what your experience there actually is, which is studying and living in another country, immersing yourself in the culture and language perhaps you would have given more thought to your own preparation. Almost all of my friends and I studied abroad in college and everyone I know who was not going to places like london or south africa made at least a little effort before hand to pick up the very basics of the main language. It seems as if you thought your boyfriend would be there so he would help you through most things but forgot that he wont be with you all the time, and that there will be language barriers, which you’ve quickly discovered. (thought I have to wonder how his friends were during previous visits, you mentioned you have visited before?)
Another issue in recognizing that this time with him will have many characteristics of studying abroad is that while Wendy is right in not sequestering yourself with americans all the time, you will need people who are going thought the same thing as you to debrief and also to vent, and that cannot really be your boyfriend. So find the balance between immersion and drowning and maybe you can get out of your own version of carrie bradshaw in paris.
SpaceySteph August 23, 2011, 10:58 am
I agree. The whole point of studying abroad is to become quickly fluent in a language. Why on earth would you want to visit any country and not try to pick up some of the language. I went to Russia for a weekend and tried to pick up some of the language! In fact in those 2 days I learned more phrases than you know in your boyfriend’s native language.
Emsz August 23, 2011, 6:06 pm
And even if you’re going to South Africa, it might be kind to the natives to pick up some Afrikaans while you’re there!
savannah August 23, 2011, 7:34 pm
…well that really depends where you are going and who you are planning on hanging out with…
kerrycontrary August 23, 2011, 8:59 am
I studied abroad and although I had studied the language for 9 YEARS before I got the chance to go abroad, I still had a lot to learn when I was there. Everyone there told me the best way to pick up a language is to have a lover that speaks that language. How did you never learn any of his language over the last 2.5 years?? I mean if I had a foreign boyfriend who spoke english I would still be curious about his language and culture. I would want to be able to communicate with him and his family in their native tounge just out of respect. I too attended a foreign language school and I would follow Wendy’s advice and try my best to make non-english speaking friends. Although this school is going to be quite a shock to you since even the beginning classes are conducted solely in that language…..pffttt this letter is just pissing me off so much I want to roll my eyes at the niave LW.
savannah August 23, 2011, 9:05 am
The classes she’s taking at the university will most likely be in English except for her language classes. That’s pretty much how it works with study abroad programs in Europe (notable exceptions Spain and some programs in France) that are designed for Americans. She might be naive but her university as home is not.
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 9:07 am
Then how much good are those programs for anything beyond educational tourism? (I am seriously asking this).
Budjer August 23, 2011, 9:11 am
My inner cynicism wants to say that the cushier it is the more people do it and the more $$$ for the college. With my college tuition experience I find it hard to believe that colleges aren’t focused on the money.
savannah August 23, 2011, 9:29 am
If you’re implying that US study abroad programs represent a multi-million dollar industry you would be absolutely correct.
Emsz August 23, 2011, 5:51 pm
My university has people come here on study abroad programs, and they just follow the regular classes that the other students do to, and most of them will be in English. The university I attend wants to market itself to foreigners, and whilst not all of the lecturers will be completely fluent without little language quirks (Dutch-isms, and occasional wrong use of words) they are very knowledgeable in their fields.
kerrycontrary August 23, 2011, 9:17 am
mmmm I studied abroad in france and my classes were solely in french so that’s what I was basing my opinion on.
savannah August 23, 2011, 9:27 am
Right, Spain and France are better at this but it also means they are more selective (based on language skills) in who they will accept into their programs. European countries with populations about 5 million are like Denmark, Slovakia, Georiga, Finland and Norway. Those languages would not be offered in middle or high schools to the extent that Spanish and French are so the requirements for college proficiency is much less. Plus many smaller European countries have english university programs for their own students so it’s easier to integrate american style study abroad programs there.
sleepy August 23, 2011, 2:24 pm
Same for my husband who studied in France. All classes were in French and he had to know the language before he went.
caroline August 23, 2011, 9:01 am
I don’t understand she didn’t try to know more about the culture and the language of her boyfriend… It’s part of him! How can you want a relationship with someone without caring where he comes from?
Plus when you go to a foreign country you can find books (in your country) with useful sentences translated and written in “your alphabet” for you to know how to pronounce them (and how they sound)… I am french and when I work as cashier, sometimes I see one calling for someone that can speak for her in english. Even amongst poeple around 20 years old so it’s a mistake to think english can be spoken everywhere.
And you readers are right, I thought “what is this mysterious country she’s talking about?”. probably an eastern europe country or something like Hungary or anycountry with a non indo-european language.
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 9:06 am
Hungarian is spoken by 12.5 million people, however . . . I spent a month living in Budapest and its possible to download free extensive language programs from the military which will help you self-tutor to a fairly high level, so there shouldn’t be such a problem learning phrases, if you are determined enough to study.
milli August 23, 2011, 10:57 am
I don’t really think that the country the LW is talking about is Hungary. I have noticed in my vacations to Budapest and Hungary(and there were many of them) that there are not so many people here that can speak English. Also, they translate everything(even movies in English), so I really don’t think Hungary matches the description. However, from my experience, nordic countries would match the description that “nearly everyone under the age of thirty here speaks English”.
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 12:13 pm
That is true.
MissChievous August 23, 2011, 2:59 pm
Forget the books! (Not really though) But there are apps! APPS!!!! That actually translate things for you! Google Translate will even pronounce the word for you or translate based on what it heard. My god, Google Translate even has Swahili and Yiddish! I’m sure there’s something out there for you.
Caris August 23, 2011, 8:57 pm
Google translate is not that good. Not even to translate from english to spanish, so I wouldn’t trust it much.
Britannia August 23, 2011, 11:13 pm
Online translators are terrible with slang! Especially if you spell a single thing wrong… for example, ‘grifo’ is faucet, ‘greifo’ is grief. Big difference!
katie August 24, 2011, 12:18 am
i think the general idea is that “there aren’t any tutors/classes about my boyfriends language” really is the lamest excuse ever.
JK August 24, 2011, 8:32 am
Off topic, but “griefo” is at most spanglish, def not spanish
caroline August 23, 2011, 9:22 am
Wow! I didn’t know there was so many people speaking hungarian!
It looks difficult, how long have you been studying? Could you easily have a conversation, like the ones the Lw talk about?
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 10:06 am
Caroline, I was doing a month-long course in how to teach English as a second language, so I was–by the nature of the class–required to be speaking and working in English almost all the time. We were taught in English, we taught in English, and in the evenings we had to prepare lesson plans in English. Plus, the few Hungarians in the class were using it as an opportunity to polish their English.
That said, both my husband and I were able to learn a few polite phrases before arriving. My husband was studying Persian, because he was moving to Afghanistan, and I was studying Russian, because I was moving to Moscow. That said, I wish we’d learned more Hungarian. The resources, however, were there for us.
caroline August 23, 2011, 1:50 pm
impressive! I like to hear this kind of stories, there is so much to learn by living in another country 🙂
Quakergirl August 23, 2011, 9:30 am
Wendy’s dead-on, especially when she says this: “So often, foreigners who speak English fluently are much more willing to do so when they see that others are making an effort to speak their language (especially when those people are actually visiting/living in their home country!).”
This is 100% the case in my experience. I speak French nearly fluently and have traveled in French-speaking countries a fair bit, but my parents can barely speak two words. So when I went with them to France, they were very nervous because they head French people don’t like Americans and can be rather rude. Much to their surprise, French people actually are quite nice when you make a basic effort to understand their language and how their culture operates. I taught them basic restaurant vocab/phrases, please/thank you, where can I find X? how much does X cost? etc. and they did just fine. Most people chose to speak to them primarily in English if they could, because most of them knew more English than my parents knew French, but they appreciated at least being addressed properly and politely in their native language and not just having people assume they spoke English.
Even if you aren’t a natural language learner and haven’t picked up on the language from having lived there for a month, you have had PLENTY of opportunities to learn the language more directly. And if you ever plan to move to his country after graduation, or even be in his life in any capacity, then you need to make this happen one way or another. Pick up some magazines in the local language about things you already understand– celebrity gossip, movies, world politics, whatever– rent some movies, read some road signs. You say there aren’t any tutors in your home city, but as Wendy pointed out, you’ve had your own private tutor for a MONTH! Ask your boyfriend to give you lessons a few times a week if you need more formal instruction. If you getting along with his friends is important to him, he should be more than willing to help.
Riefer August 23, 2011, 1:52 pm
Yep, I’ve never had an issue in France. I love it there actually. The most important phrase to know is: “Bonjour, parlez-vous anglais?”. I would guess that’s the most important phrase in any language – I learn it before going to any foreign country. At least then you can approach people in their own language, and ask if they know yours.
artsygirl August 23, 2011, 9:35 am
LW – One way to try to win over your BF’s friends is maybe to engage with them. Ask them to help you out with the language.
My father learned Provencal (a dialect in southern France – sounds like a combo of Italian and French) by playing word games with his friends from the region. They would run back and forth on the train to school learning curses and funny phrases. One of my favorites translates into English “My special child, if you do not shut up you are asking for a smack that you will regret.”
Robin August 23, 2011, 9:36 am
I’m more sympathetic to the LW than most of the posters. I had a boyfriend in Israel, and also happen to be horrible at learning languages. I had studied Hebrew for 3 years at university and could read okay if I had a dictionary handy but couldn’t hold up a conversation. It does really suck to be sitting with a group of people unable to understand anything they’re saying. However, I tried to look at it as if my boyfriend were a stock broker or something and we were hanging out with his stock broker friends. Of course, they’re going to want to talk about stock broking which might be pretty much unintelligible to me, but, if we’re at home, I can do something else – read a book or watch TV or whatever and let them bond. Or, if I want to be include, I can turn to the person nearest to me and start a non-stockbroking conversation. Honestly, I felt bad if there were six people there who were native Hebrew speakers and they were all talking in English for my benefit only – it seemed so unfair for everyone else to be less comfortable for my benefit only. Really, the only time I got really mad was when my then boyfriend invited me to visit a friend of his and then they spent the an hour plus talking to each other in Hebrew and not including me at all. Since there was only three of us – and since we were going out and there wasn’t anything else I could do – it seemed really rude not to include me.
So overall, try to be friendly, start conversations on your own in English if necessary, and don’t order people what to do. Added benefit is that you’ll learn the language much quicker.
All this said, I have to say it doesn’t bode well for the future of your relationship that you’re willing to dump your boyfriend because he’s not ordering his friends to speak English. That doesn’t speak of the kind of commitment necessary to maintain a long distance / cross-cultural relationship.
cookiesandcream August 23, 2011, 10:27 am
I agree with you, Robin. I want to cut the LW some slack as well because it sounds like the LW is trying to learn a language that’s a local dialect rather than a national language or her boyfriend’s country is very small. It’s a very different to learn a language that not that many people speak because the vast majority of the language industry caters to tourists.
LW, here are a few suggestions that you may also want to consider:
1. Out of your boyfriend’s friends, which one is the friendliest? You can ask your boyfriend to set up a friend date between the two of you so his friend can also help you learn the language and guide you through everyday life in your new country. Plus, you never know if someone he knows is looking to improve his/her English, so you can set up a mutual thing where you help someone with their English while the other person helps you with the native language.
2. You say there are no classes or tutors in your city; have you tried seeing if there are any resources online? If that doesn’t work out, maybe a language expert or a professor from another university and you can work out an online/email course program.
3. If you none of this works out, you can always post a notice in your new university explaining your situation and seeing if someone would be willing to be your tutor. Even if money is an issue, you can find someone who would be willing to work out an alternative plan, such as you do some chores for that person and you get some free lessons.
Lastly, from what you wrote in your letter, it seems like you feel a little neglected because your boyfriend treats you as though you don’t exist. Has he been guiding you through the whole process? Making sure that your needs are met? Does he set aside special alone time with you or do you feel like you’re always hanging out with him and his friends? When you do hang out with his friends, does he make any effort to make you feel more comfortable? From my perspective, it wouldn’t be asking too much for him to stop every once in a while and say to you, “This is what we’re talking about.” If you’re feeling like you need more from him, you should definitely speak up and see what he has to say.
Robin August 23, 2011, 10:59 am
Good point about the boyfriend. We’ve been really quick to blame the letter writer, but it is possible she’s feeling slighted because she’s actually being slighted. My ex when he picked me from the airport after I spent $1000 and 12 hours in a plane to visit him made me sit in the back of the car and sat in the front and just talked with his friend on the hour drive to his house – barely said anything to me. This is part of the reason he’s my ex. It’s possible that it’s not really a language issue but more an issue of the boyfriend just never really including her.
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 11:14 am
That certainly is true. The boyfriend may also be at fault here.
Kate B August 23, 2011, 12:27 pm
I had a similar experience with a boyfriend. He lived in England and was an American, so there wasn’t a language barrier. But, after I flew 6000 miles to see him, I spent most of my time alone. Fortunately, I can never be bored in London, so I found plenty to do. In retrospect, the best days of that trip were the days I spent alone. Should’ve figured that out earlier. I would have have more fun. 🙂
Riefer August 23, 2011, 1:58 pm
Yeah, I agree it’s weird that he doesn’t even try to translate for her. I used to date a German guy, and one time when I was visiting him we had dinner with his two roommates and the girlfriend of one of the roommates. One of the roommates knew english, but the other one only knew german and italian, and his girlfriend only knew italian. So, the three guys spoke mostly german, and then the respective boyfriends translated for the girls. It was actually tons of fun! And we did try to jump in with german whenever we could, although I never got very good at it. 🙂
But yeah, if her boyfriend’s not even translating for her, and just letting her sit there staring into space, that’s weird. Although it’s hard to tell whether he’s rightfully upset because she hasn’t bothered trying to learn the language, or whether she’s rightfully upset that she hasn’t been able to learn the language because he can’t be bothered teaching it to her. Could be either way, we don’t have enough info to tell.
moonflowers August 23, 2011, 9:51 am
Agreed with Wendy on all counts.
Also, as someone whose native language is English but who can do a reasonable job of sounding native-level in Chinese, it is entirely true that English is just much more comfortable and expressive to me, no matter how fluent I sound in Chinese. There’s so much cultural nuance and shared heritage in any language that even a daily-life but non-native level of proficiency still doesn’t cover the complexity and depth of idioms, allusions to folklore and history, and even street slang in that language.
When the LW’s boyfriend and friends are hanging out, not only do they want to be comfortable, they also want to communicate with depth and precision – which they might not feel they can to do as well in English no matter how fluent they are. Unless they grew up in a truly bilingual home where both English and the home language were spoken equally, English isn’t their “native” language.
Quakergirl August 23, 2011, 10:09 am
That’s definitely true. Even though I’ve been told I don’t sound American when I speak French (because I learned as a kid) and can express myself relatively smoothly, it doesn’t feel the same to me as English.
That being said, though, she could make an effort with the friends, and the friends would more likely than not make an effort with her. They don’t have to discuss Hegel– like she said, they could talk about a movie or a concert. If they speak any English at all and she makes a decent effort to learn their language, they could probably discuss that with a mix of both languages and maybe even help each other better their language comprehension in the process.
wendyblueeyes August 23, 2011, 10:25 am
My daughter attended a semester in Brisbane Australia 2 years ago. The tuition was exactly the same as her university here. The room and board however, were what the university in Brisbane charged all their students. Not only was it cheaper, but with the exchange rate favoring American dollars, it was substantially cheaper. The books were cheaper for the same reason. We paid airfare from LA to Brisbane, also cheaper because she got the student discount. When all was said and done, she saved about $1000 on the semester. I let her fly from Brisbane to Caberra to meet a friend for a weekend, and also from Brisbane to Sydney. Each flight round trip was less than $100 US Dollars. She had a blast, made the dean’s list, and caught up with a friend she hadn’t seen in 6 years. She spent some money travelling around the Gold Coast and Queensland areas. And it didn’t cost us any more than if she had stayed here in the US.
niki August 23, 2011, 10:32 am
Ok, I’m about to get many thumbs down here, but I think Wendy was way harsh. So the LW hasn’t learned much yet in her month abroad. She didn’t learn the language before going. However, some people don’t learn languages through books. They learn them through practice and repetition and actual person-to-person instruction. It doesn’t sound like this LW has any aversion to learning the language. Nor does it sound like she expects the whole world to speak HER language. She wants to learn and she is signed up for a class. But would it be so hard for her bf’s friends to at least try and include her in their conversations. Seems a little hostile to me that they aren’t really even attempting it. Being in a foreign country can be overwhelming and scary, so maybe she’s relied a little too much on her boyfriend. My advice to the letter writer would be to try and get out more without him. Immerse herself in the culture without her bf around and maybe she’ll start picking up the language naturally. But I think it is a red-flag that her bf isn’t doing more to make her feel included. How hard would it be for him to do some light translation? While I agree that it is on the LW to learn the language and not expect others to pick up the slack for her, I think a little compassion may be in order.
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 10:37 am
You’re right, too. However, a big crowd makes it even harder to use a different language. Perhaps the LW can set up one-on-one social dates with some of his sympathetic friends.
Sara August 23, 2011, 10:37 am
I am a linguist, and I think that there is some misinformation in Wendy’s response.
A language with only 5 million speakers–especially if it is a minority language in the country and/or spoken mostly by people from a lower socio-economic status–probably does *not* have the wealth of resources that Wendy imagines. Dutch, even though there are few speakers, has many resources since there is a great deal of wealth in that area.
Even if there is a Rosetta Stone program for this language, truly learning the language this way is much more difficult than learning the language in the classroom.
Finally, many of you suggest that if she just knew a few more phrases, she’d be OK. Probably she needs at least 3 years of intense study of the language before she can participate in conversations at the level she is used to.
LW, put forth more of an effort. Find a tutor. See if the public library has tutoring resources/books on the language. Practice. Practice. Practice. That is the only way to learn a language. You will not communicate at the level you want to communicate at by the end of the semester, but maybe with more obvious efforts, your bf’s friends will be more likely to indulge you with English. Good luck!
El August 23, 2011, 11:42 am
I posted this above, but Norwegian, Finnish, and Danish all have 5 million speakers worldwide…and I know that Scandinavia has terrific language resources. A good friend of mine spent a year in Finland and came home 100% fluent. Finland is even considered “backwoods” by Scandinavian standards, and she said that they had some amazing language immersion programs in her host family’s town.
Wendy August 23, 2011, 10:56 am
I stand by my response. There is absolutely no excuse to not know more than two words of one’s boyfriend’s native language after knowing him for two and a half years and living in his country for over a month. I never suggested she be efficient in the language, but showing a little effort can go a long, long way in endearing yourself to the locals and motivating them to help you and welcome you. It’s quite telling that she’s blaming others for not making an effort to communicate with her when she never bothered to learn even one single phrase of the native language of her host country (A “wealth of resources” most certainly is not necessary for that. A book, or you, know, asking her boyfriend to teach her something would have sufficed. ).
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 11:53 am
It wouldn’t be fair to underestimate the difficulty of learning a foreign language, and I will admit that some are harder than others. Hungarian has something like 18 cases. However, there are resources for many languages freely available, and I think posters are right to push the LW to make a strong effort to learn. Even if she doesn’t get to be very good, it will make everyone better disposed towards her. Perhaps even more likely to speak English with her.
Those are all free downloads of public domain versions of the Foreign Service Institute training courses.
You can also download Peace Corps training guides for many countries, for instance, if you need to learn some Estonian:
If you search on ERIC (linked above) you can download PDFs of Peace Corps guides for hundreds of languages throughout the world. All free!
haggith August 23, 2011, 1:35 pm
true sara, it takes around 3 years to be able to keep a basic conversation and around 7 to be proficient. she needs to be patient, she just tried for a month. however, it is strange that she just picked up a couple of phrases… understandable only if it was before she got more serious with her boyfriend and and unacceptable the moment she decided to move with him. i had an italian boyfriend and when i decided to visit him for a month (a trip planned for 3 or months) i picked up an italian for dummies just to be able to address his friends and relatives in their language even if i didn’t get the right pronunciation. i couldn’t participate in their conversations and my boyfriend would translate some of it for me, but not all (i bet it was tiring).
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 2:23 pm
Haggith, I think that your numbers skew high. If you are immersed in a language and really working at it (both practicing and studying, hopefully with a teacher or tutor), you can get to “basic conversation” much faster than 3 years. I got from practically nothing to conversational in 9 weeks, and to advanced enough to do graduate work in Russian–writing 30 pages of final papers–in just over two years. That’s pretty proficient.
However, that is still not fluency. Having to live in Russian 24/7 would have been exhausting, and getting to the next level up would have taken a MUCH longer time investment and continued immersion.
haggith August 23, 2011, 2:36 pm
actually demoiselle, second language acquisition research supports those numbers when getting at the BICS level (basic interpersonal communication skills) and CALP level (cognitive academic language proficiency). definitely you were able to perform (in written) better in you graduate work because your academic knowledge made it easy for your to transfer it to russian.
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 2:52 pm
Perhaps so, and I was very fortunate to have the best possible combination of immersion language instruction and time in-country. It helped a lot.
haggith August 23, 2011, 2:45 pm
just a question? didn’t you have to take the russian equivalent of the TOEFL (if there is any) in order to get into a graduate program there? here in the usa you need to get a minimum of 80 points out of 120 to be accepted?
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 2:55 pm
My graduate program was here in the US, at Middlebury College, where I had already studied two summers. They therefore had already tested me and had my language competency on file, in the scale that they use in their program.
haggith August 23, 2011, 3:01 pm
you were lucky they weren’t stricter with the language test. To get into a graduate program here in the US for foreigners like me you need to take the GRE (that tests your academics in english of course) and the TOEFL (that test both academics and social communication skills). no matter if you’re a genius in your country: if you don’t pass them, you aren’t accepted. luckily einstein didn’t have to take the toefl!!!
JK August 24, 2011, 8:48 am
When I was 16 my family moved from an english speaking country to a spanish one (they were both born here). I did understand some of the language, I spoke the bare basics. Due to a mix up with the embassy in my home country we arrived 1 week before classes started. So I started my 2nd to last year of High School in a completely foreign language less than 10 days after arriving in a completely new country (I had never even visited).
It was tough but by the end of the 1st yer I was pretty much fluent, even speaking english at home (I still do with my brother and mum 16 years later). So I really believe that if you are serious about learning a language (and immerse yourself), you should speak it in a lot less than 3 years!!!
Kirsten August 23, 2011, 9:48 am
They claim, according to my boyfriend, that they cannot sufficiently express themselves in English to carry on a conversation about complicated matters.
For my job, I occasionally have to interview people for whom English is a second language, and I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that your boyfriend’s friends are being absolutely truthful when they say this.
The people I interview need to tell me about their jobs and companies, basically: what they do, how they use technology, and how that technology has helped their companies. It’s also not terribly complex information, but you’d be amazed at how difficult it is for them. Every time they have to search mentally for the right vocabulary word, for example, it interrupts their train of thought. There’s also an anxiety level. Nobody wants to sound stupid. If they mispronounce something, or garble the syntax, and I have to ask them to repeat themselves, imagine how they feel.
I’ve learned not to believe it when I’m told someone is “fluent” in English. Fluency is a continuum, and just because someone can carry on basic small talk doesn’t mean he/she is fluent in the sense of a native speaker . . .
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 10:09 am
Absolutely true. Native speakers sometimes think I’m fluent in Russian, because I have a good accent and I can rattle off basic conversation. But I know the truth, which is that the sphere of what I can express is limited, even though I am an “advanced” speaker according to all tests.
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 10:24 am
And a note: the journey from “advanced” student to being a truly fluent speaker requires an investment of YEARS of practice and immersion. That means that it will take the LW a very long time to get to be fluent, and she must recognize that. It also means that her boyfriend’s friends are probably no where near as good as she thinks, even if they’d had schooling in English for many years.
On the other hand, she might think that it is easy for them to speak English, because they “learned from watching television and movies” and it somehow came naturally to them just via osmosis. That’s unlikely. I remember talking to a wonderfully conversant 20 year old Estonian, who could make nuanced word-play jokes in English and who knew many idioms and cultural references. I asked how he’d learned, and he said it was through TV and movies. But then I dug further–asked if he hadn’t been practicing with American students in his dorm and taking English classes throughout his entire elementary education. He looked abashed and exclaimed, “well, but my teacher was a drunkard!”
TaraMonster August 23, 2011, 10:52 am
Similar experience with me in Spanish. People think “fluent” means making pretty noises they can’t understand. I’m advanced on paper, but my speaking abilities are intermediate, and my accent is very good (though I get told all the time I sound Mexican, which is strange because I learned Spanish mainly around Puerto Ricans, but I digress).
What really bugs me is when non-Spanish speaking friends and family call me over at a party or something, announce me as “fluent,” and shove me into a conversation with the one person there who also speaks Spanish so they can grin while we make awkward conversation and I apologize for my language skills. Though I have had some pretty amusing conversations that way. So I guess it’s not all that bad, just annoying.
Lydia August 23, 2011, 1:12 pm
Yup, this is very very true. I’m a Dutch native speaker and consider myself almost fluent in English (I even frequently think in English), but even so, I can get flustered when speaking to a native speaker. Sometimes I can’t find the right sentence structure or the exact word. There’s also the knowledge that, unlike with your English-speaking friends who are not native speakers, any mistakes you make will be caught way more easily by a native speaker, and may cause you embarassment.
ncp August 23, 2011, 1:36 pm
I’ve been speaking, reading, and writing Hindi since I was born. In fact, I didn’t speak ANY English until I started nursery school. My in-laws and relatives all consider me fluent because I speak without an accent and can speak very fast. Also, since most of my Hindi language exposure comes from my parents, who exposed me to a more archaic, literary style of Sanskrit/Hindi through scriptures, I use a lot of words that are “old-fashioned”among modern Hindi speakers.
But in reality, I am far from fluent. I mess up VERY basic things like masculine/feminine nouns, tenses, basic grammar, etc. I have a fairly large vocabulary, but I struggle to express complex thoughts. Ability to carry on a conversation is NOT the same as being fluent.
MiMi August 23, 2011, 10:48 am
Every mixed-nation couple ends up with a preferred language – yours might very well be English – but a good understanding of the second language adds so much to your joint communication. You end up speaking a conglomeration of both and it’s brilliant because words in another language can express exactly what you mean, while remaining completely untranslatable. Not to mention making it possible for you to interact with all the people around you – whether you perceive them to be fluent in English or not.
Since you are in your boyfriend’s country, and theoretically at school, the onus is on you to step up and learn everything you possibly can. Take the focus and pressure off your boyfriend to be your social director, tour guide, or interpreter. He’s your boyfriend, not your Mammy – so don’t sit there like a bump on a log through one more unintelligible conversation, grab that dictionary and get ready to add something to it, even if “Awesome!” is the only word you can think to look up…
JK August 24, 2011, 8:51 am
So true… my husband is native spanish speaker, as I posted above I’ve been in Latin America for 16 years (moved when I was 16), native english speaker. Although we speak spanish mostly, he also makes an effort to speak english (like whn my father and his wife visit), we usually watch movies in english. It also comes in handy to speak when we don’t want our 3 yo to understand! She’s picking up quite a bit of english, but not fluent yet.
Zyggurat August 23, 2011, 10:57 am
Sorry I have to disagree with most of the commenters here – this is not about her unwillingness to learn the language, it’s about conversational etiquette. When you are with a group of people who all speak your language but you don’t speak theirs, it’s polite for them to switch to your language for the sake of inclusion (even if it’s not as “comfortable” for them). I’m saying this as someone who was married for years to a Pole, and sat through endless hours of conversations that I couldn’t understand. Even though ALL HIS FRIENDS SPOKE ENGLISH, they chose to converse in Polish around me, a language I never fully got my head around.
It could take YEARS for the LW to become fully conversant in her boyfriend’s language. In the meantime his friends need to be more accommodating and welcoming to her by speaking in English. It’s hard enough acclimatizing to a new country without people excluding you from something as basic as conversation.
Britannia August 23, 2011, 1:28 pm
It would be polite if she were simply a visitor, but she’s not– she lives there. Obviously she hasn’t been motivated enough on her own to learn the language of her new country, so maybe the boyfriend and friends are trying to force her into realizing that knowing Enlish does not justify her extreme lack of effort and she needs to respect her new country.
Jess of CityGirlsWorld.com August 23, 2011, 10:08 am
I agree with Wendy but I am ALSO very sympathetic to LW. I lived in Europe for many years and dated 2 different men who spoke minority languages (Dutch and Estonian). In both cases, I studied the language but it was NOT easy.
Mainly what I want to say to LW is that what you are feeling is NORMAL and has probably very little to do with your boyfriend. This is called “culture shock” and the stages of it are very well documented. Earlier visits don’t really count as they are part of the fantasy/honeymoon period. Now, one month into your stay, you’re in stage 2: The Frustration Stage. Check out this handy website:
Mainly its going to take time, time, time. Time to learn the language, time to assimilate, and time to make your friends, time to create new routines, time to adjust.
Don’t make any big decisions during this assimilation phase! Work like hell on getting the language, even if its hard. Study online, read children’s books, ask people to speak more slowly or repeat. You’re lucky to be surrounded by all these native speakers. Immersion is painful but its the fastest way to learn. Give yourself language breaks as you need them. Skype friends from home, read People magazine, etc. But don’t relent in your effort to learn the language and culture. The pay off —once you get past this stage– will be big. And I’d be willing to bet your relationship growing pains will ease up by then too.
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 10:17 am
I found it very useful to play Russian music on my ipod nonstop, to buy elementary readers (they should be available since the LW is in the country itself) and read them ALOUD to help make both your tongue and your mind familiar with how to make and think the words, and finally to buy my favorite Harry Potter books in translation and work through it from beginning to end (anything that you like and are very familiar with will work). Also, watch TV as much as possible. Radio is OK, too, but being able to see faces helps a lot.
Culture shock is also very real and it can be both frustrating and (occasionally) terrifying.
I studied three summers at Middlebury College in VT. Their language immersion programs are 6, 7, or 9 weeks in which you must pledge not to read, write, listen to, or speak any language except for the target one. It is HARD, but you make HUGE strides. My husband and I were in our first year of dating when we did the Russian school together. We’d been on separate continents for most of our relationship, and then were plunged into nine weeks of only being able to communicate in a language he had never even studied. We were planning a move into a new city which took place only a week after our summer course ended.
Yet, we managed to make it though the summer following the rules–aside from (I think) two twenty minute “time outs” we had to take to plan the organization of our various families and cars for the move.
Learning a language is hard. But it is doable. Good luck, LW!
Rachel August 23, 2011, 6:58 pm
That’s so cool. I’d love to be able to do an immersion program, but I can’t imagine ever being able to find the time. I’m impressed you and your now-husband didn’t go crazy!
Sigrid August 23, 2011, 11:11 am
Well, I’m going to have to disagree with pretty much everyone for the first time ever. My family comes from Sweden, where nearly everyone (re: 95% practically) speaks English fluently. No, I’m not talking advanced but fluently. Yes, she should have studied the language a little bit before she headed over to the the country of her boyfriend. Nonetheless, his friends are being incredibly hostile and I say this as a bilingual person. They should interject with English once in a while at the very least, and people are a little delusional if they think one year of study would allow this girl to converse with his friends.
MsBorgia August 23, 2011, 11:42 am
I agree— I don’t think the LW has made nearly enough effort to learn the language but it’s also rude of his friends to exclude her when they do speak English. They don’t have to speak about anything “serious”— I bet even a conversation of what movies they’d seen would make her feel much more comfortable.
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 11:56 am
I think people (or at least I) focus on the LW learning the language because that is something she can address. If her boyfriend and his friends are just jerks, rather than she has overestimated their language abilities, then that is something she’ll come to realize over time, and there most likely isn’t anything she can do to fix it…
Morgan August 23, 2011, 1:24 pm
I agree with demoiselle, at least in regards to how I approached the issue.
It could very well be that his friends are thinking “Oh god, LW’s Boyfriend brought annoying American chick around again. How much longer do we have to put up with her for again?” and then don’t talk to her, because they don’t like her personally, because she’s actually annoying, because they don’t ever like any of his girlfriends, because they don’t ever like girls, could be a number of reasons. Or it could be she never really made an effort to communicate with them so they’re not going to bother to talk to her, but if she did try, they would try too.
We can’t really say from the letter, but my advice to the first would basically be “Your boyfriend’s friends are jerks. That sucks. He might also be a jerk, which would suck a lot.” Whereas there are actually things she can do to make progress in the second scenario, and even trying and failing to communicate in their language could help warm them up to her. What’s she got to lose by at least trying? Worst case scenario, everything stays the same and she realizes boyfriend and co aren’t actually all that great, best case scenario, everything gets better.
I also don’t think anyone suggested she should be able to converse with them after X amount of time. (Haven’t read all the comments, so could be wrong, but in the ones I’ve read). Just that she should work on picking up enough phrases and words to show that she’s trying, beyond “Please, goodbye, where is the bus station.” I know in my experiences studying abroad, approaching people in their native language initially, even if I did then have to switch to English once we progressed beyond basic basic conversation, helped a lot towards being treated like a human being rather than a dumb tourist. So did using basic expressions from that country even when speaking mostly English; the local equivalents of “cool” or “whatever” or “whoa.”
Quakergirl August 23, 2011, 3:37 pm
Eeeeexactly. She’s not going to be able to discuss metaphysics in a month, but a basic grasp of their conversations and a basic ability to even say hello or “we saw movie ABC last night and thought it was good” should be relatively easy while living in the country and having a person who *is* fluent to help tutor her. That will go a long way towards endearing her to the friends. It probably would help if the boyfriend translated a little for her, too, if he isn’t already doing that.
JK August 24, 2011, 8:53 am
Don’t forget the curses!!! Isn’t that always the 1st thing we learn in any language? 🙂
Budjer August 23, 2011, 11:45 am
Multiple people I work with have told me that the region your family is from is very English-speaking friendly. People will go out of their way to chat you up to practice their English.
MsBorgia August 23, 2011, 11:41 am
There’s this awesome thing called the internet that lets you learn all sorts of things— yes, even languages!— for free!
Jess August 23, 2011, 12:04 pm
I’m going to assume she’s in Iceland. My mom did this exact thing after she met my dad while backpacking around Europe in the 70s. She moved there four months after meeting him, so there wasn’t much time to learn the language at all and she spent the entire year they lived together there working in a factory that made sweaters since she eventually only got to the comprehension level of a two-year-old by the time they got married and moved back to the states. I totally understand how she would know very little if it’s Icelandic. That shit is HARD. My French teacher, who also ran the foreign exchange program at my high school, said that she’d lived there for a month in an immersive program to learn the language and had serious issues. So I completely get why she hasn’t gotten conversational yet. There are three different genders whose usage changes depending on who you’re talking to, or when and what you’re talking about. There’s three different ways to count to ten. My dad would try as hard as he could to make her feel included and direct the conversation into English or translate while other people were talking, but it didn’t always work. She had very few friends while she was there.
That being said, my mom made it SUPER clear that she wasn’t going to live the rest of her life in Iceland. She loves to travel, but after six months of backpacking, she realized that while she loves most of Europe, she was too American to enjoy living anywhere else for the rest of her life. Living in Iceland was hard. They have a different sense of humor and ways of interacting with others that was much more reserved than she was used to. Plus, the language barrier won’t ever go away unless you become truly fluent, which could takes years of hard work. Even now when my family visits, we go for a month at a time and by the end of the trip, without fail one evening the dinner conversation will spontaneously shift back into Icelandic, because while my entire family is fluent in English, speaking in your second language gets to be tiring after a while. So my mom, me, and my little brother would just eat that meal in silence, because it’s fair to let them have a break. So either you’re going to be speaking in your second language for the rest of your life, or all of his friends will have to. And it’s going to be you.
Do you know where you’re going to live eventually? Is he coming to the States with you? Are you moving there? You need to have that conversation NOW. My mom moved there under the full disclosure that my dad would have to move to the US if they got married. He had lived there while he was a teenager, so he was totally willing. My uncle, however, will never live anywhere else in the world. If your boyfriend is in the latter camp, you need to really gauge how you are when you’re living in the country you’re at. Do you want to be there for the rest of your life and spend years of it struggling to understand what’s going on around you? Do you want your kids to be American or whatever culture you’re living in now? If so, awesome! But you really need to be aware of how you’re feeling and if you’re just tolerating staying there, you might need to reevaluate where this relationship is going.
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 12:10 pm
Now, we’ve been treating this LW as if the *only* problem is her apparent lack of effort over the course of their relationship to learn her boyfriend’s language–something which is a real problem and might be giving *him* as much pause as his and his friends’ behavior is giving the LW.
However, it is simultaneously possible that he and his friends are also to blame, to a greater or lesser extent. Probably the greatest blame is the boyfriend’s, who should encourage his friends to include his girlfriend by speaking English, or more likely by translating the conversation for her. That is basic, caring behavior and for some reason it sounds like her BF is tripping up.
There are many questions that the LW needs to explore over the coming semester. First, she should talk to her boyfriend about what is happening, and request that he translate and help her be included. Second, she should try to get him to set up more neutral or easier social events–rather than parties, they could watch subtitled movies, or get together with just one or two other people.
Second, she needs to learn a LOT about her boyfriend’s culture. Why isn’t he including her? There are many possibilities, and her choice about continuing the relationship might depend on which are the real reasons. Is he selfish? Are his friends foul-mouthed, crude, or demeaning to women, and he doesn’t want the LW to know what they are saying?
Are there major cultural differences that she doesn’t yet appreciate? I don’t know what the situation would be like in a Nordic country, but my time spent in Eastern European/Slavic countries made me VERY aware of the gender-divided culture in general, and especially the macho sociality among men. Are the friends a gender-mixed group? Or are they all guys? Would the GF talking too much make him look bad in front of the fellows (and therefore it suits him to let her be left out)? Would their relationship or her way of expressing herself be anathema to the accepted gender relations in his country?
A female friend of mine grew up in America during her teen years, and expresses herself like an American woman even though she is Russian. She’s a scientist, and she has struggled because it is still common among her Russian peers for women to steer conversation in such a way that the men think that THEY are coming up with all the ideas. The women feed their thoughts and discoveries through the men, and it is expected. She’s had Russian boyfriends who have told her privately that she’s ruined them for other Russian women, because she speaks her mind and they like it. But that doesn’t mean they’d be comfortable with her doing that in public.
LW, you must get to the bottom of this before you commit to your boyfriend, and in that your reactions are justified and sensible. Make an effort to learn the language, definitely learn everything you can about the culture, and talk to your boyfriend about what is happening to see if he makes an effort to improve.
I’m sorry if I seemed harsh above–it is tempting to encourage LWs to fix what is easy to fix, but it isn’t always 100% fair.
demoiselle August 23, 2011, 12:36 pm
I understood that I wouldn’t live the rest of my life in Russia–even though I love many things about it and am still learning the language to the best of my ability–when I noticed the hand-shake culture. During the Soviet period, it was common for everyone to shake hands upon meeting, but since the USSR dissolved it’s returned to being a ritual for men only.
This bothered me a little bit, but I knew that I couldn’t settle there forever–no matter how wonderful a boyfriend I might find–when I was in rehearsal one day and one of the actresses brought her two year old boy into the room. Although I’d been coming for weeks and no one had ever greeted me, now all the men stopped what they were doing so they could go shake hands with the two-year-old.
And that was enough to know that my psyche would not appreciate a lifetime there, no matter how I loved other aspects of the culture. Keep your eyes open, keep your mind open, and talk to you boyfriend and your friends from the culture (especially women, and women who have spent time in your home country) so you know what you’re getting into.
savannah August 23, 2011, 12:41 pm
She also doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel here. I think if she was just a little more focused on herself and the value of her own experiences rather than just being able to live with her boyfriend I think she would be less upset. There is a huge difference between studying abroad somewhere and living somewhere. Perhaps she got caught up in planning her life with her boyfriend (exciting as it really is to close that distance in a LDR) that she forgot she was getting a wonderful opportunity to immerse herself in a country and with that wonderful opportunity comes all of the hardship, struggle and growth that she should have been hearing about from her own universities international offices for months prior to the move.
Nina August 23, 2011, 1:01 pm
I did this in Germany, with my boyfriend who lived their (we met through an exchange program). In the begining, I tried my hardest to get along and understand (I didnt speak a word of German) but eventually not being able to communicate with anybody wore me down and I ended up breaking down in front of everyone over ordering takeout. I was so upset because everyone could speak english, but chose their native german and so I was left out of every conversation, unless my boyfriend translated. My then boyfriend was very supportive, and consoled me as much as he could, but explained that it was embarrasing and hard for his friends to communicate soley in English. I realized then, in the middle of crying how utterly selfish I was being-I am in their country, having a beautiful experience and should be doing my best to work with them instead of expecting them to work with me. So, from then on I did my best to pick up/learn as much German as possible. I started small-repeating what my bf said, ordering all our tickets/food/groceries/clothing, and literally within a month I was gathering the gist of a conversation and understand parts of what was being said to me. In my opinion, its easier to understand being spoken to then trying to speak. I eventually had to return to Canada, but I continued learning German even after we broke up, and I LOVE it!
Just take it one day at a time, and definitely force yourself to learn the language-order a coffee, order dinner, ask for the time, anything to get yourself started. Your boyfriend is the perfect resource-he cares about you and is willing to help. Let him help you help yourself!!!!
Nina August 23, 2011, 3:40 pm
There*** Not “their” hahaha 🙂
cookiesandcream August 23, 2011, 4:15 pm
LW, I really hope you update us with your exact location because you never know if one of us has been to or is living in the same area as you! 🙂
Jshizzle August 23, 2011, 5:43 pm
When I was in France the other exchange students would sometimes speak english to appease me, however, I had no problem with them rambling away in German because it’s not fair for it to be hard for everyone else just for one person.
Anthrocuse August 23, 2011, 6:31 pm
My boyfriend speaks a language that is extremely difficult to find language skill cds/books in, but you know what? In the past 2.5 years I have found maybe 4 and have listened to and memorized WAY more than two words. I’m by no means fluent, but I listen politely when the language is spoken and join in when I can. And all without traveling to his country and certainly without being there for a month. I’m with Wendy on this one. If you love the guy you’ll at least try to learn some words in his language no matter how obscure!
katie August 24, 2011, 12:12 am
seriously!! the only reason i think it would be ok for her not to be able to learn the language is if it was a dead language. BUT dead languages are dead because people dont speak them anymore, so that situation is just not plausible at all.
Caris August 23, 2011, 9:49 pm
1- Maybe you should have learnt a bit more of the language so as not to feel so excluded
2- Why doesn’t your bf translate what his friends are saying to you?
That is what I would do for my bf if we were to hang out with friends of mine who don’t know english (or know very little). That being said, I’m pretty sure some of my friends would try to teach my bf how to speak spanish. (My bf is from the US and I’m from Argentina)
JK August 24, 2011, 8:57 am
Are you living in Argentina? What part? (I’m in Gran Buenos AIres)
Caris August 25, 2011, 11:53 pm
:O Yes I live in Argentina, also in Buenos Aires, in San Isidro 😀 .
katie August 23, 2011, 10:40 pm
the only thing i would like to say to this LW is that if you AND your boyfriend aren’t willing to mold your lives to be a little bit more american (for him) and little bit more “european” (for you), this relationship wont work out.
think about if you two were different religions, say catholic and jewish. if the two of you really wanted to work it out, both of you would have to learn the others practices, words, traditions, holidays, ect… its really no different. the catholic would have to learn jewish words to understand what goes on at temple, the jew would have to understand the ceremony of a catholic service, and why exactly they do what they do, ect… you would celebrate different holidays, explain to the other and teach what the holidays mean, and how to celebrate them, when, ect…. its literally no different.
i think this letter shows a lack of trying on both your parts- neither one of you is trying to understand the other, in a very literal sense, not just in the language sense.
Genevieve August 24, 2011, 2:08 am
I was you, more or less, 6 years ago when I moved to the Netherlands to join the man who is now my husband. I understand why you don’t speak much (Danish? Finnish?) and I know why your boyfriend wasn’t gonna play language teacher for those 30 minutes a day you had to chat before you moved (time difference’s a bitch, and in my case, my guy was a piss-poor teacher of Dutch). So ya, I get you. I know it’s frustrating, but it’s nit just language that’s the issue here (him ignoring you in a small crowd, not noticing you are being kept out, not translating or making an effort to include you- explaining his friends’ point of view to you but probably not explaining yours to the friends, etc).
But you _are_ in a foreign country, and this is partly to see if you not only can live with him, but also if you could live in that country, so you need to realize that you are, indeed, the one who will need to adapt and not the other way around.I would suggest a compromise, and have your boyfriend inforce it, that when people come to visit you in the house you share, English will be spoken. Bur when you meet out for drinks or at their place, you are shit-out-of-luck and Danish will be spoken. Could that work? Just remember that for a while, you simply will have to use your imagination to entertain yourself when out with your boyfriend and his friends.
Lydia August 24, 2011, 2:28 am
Did you learn Dutch eventually? Did you find it hard? I always wonder what my language is like for foreigners.
Genevieve August 24, 2011, 3:38 am
Naturlijk! Ik ben wel ingeburgerd! So I did learn Dutch, and I felt it was important to do so as my husband’s family doesn’t really speak English, and the nephews are little and only speak Dutch (understandably). And I want to belong, We’ll have kids here who will most probably go to school in Dutch and I want to be able to speak to teachers and other parents, etc. But to be honest, we still never speak Dutch together. For both of us, English is a second language, so I can’t imagine changing our couple-language to something else after 9 years (there was suggestions of Swahili, but I don’t think that will happen!)
It was hard to learn Dutch but I think I also underestimated how much work it would be. I don’t think it’s any harder than any other lamnguage. In retrospect, I should have spent a month or so in intensive classes somewhere instead of doing a few night classes a week for years. It would have been more effective. It’s not particularly hard, but it’s true the average Burger King cashier speaks better English than I speak Dutch, and it’s easy to coast for years on Dutchies willingness to speak English. But that’s a cop-out; that’s once again making a country adapt to you rather than the other way around.
On the other hand, I work in English and French, and apart from lunch conversations or asking the few Dutch colleagues if they want coffee, there’s very little Dutch conversation going on in my day. For the first few years of living here, I really tried to make Dutch friends and it just wasn’t happening and I finally asked a few girls I was friendly with (but wasn’t truly friends with) why that was and they said English felt like work and they just didn’t want to speak it outside of work. They felt self-conscious and like their ideas didn’t get across very well, and it just wasn’t relaxing. Pretty much, exactly how I feel about Dutch! You can’t blame them!
In the end, I did make a few Dutch friends, but mainly, my friends are fellow expats or foreigners who married Dutch guys. Still, I’m really proud that I’ve learned a 3rd language as an adult, and I’ve been impressed by how much better I understand the culture being able to read books and watch movies in the original language. It’s made me feel like a belong here a lot more.
Lydia August 24, 2011, 5:15 am
Goed van je! I’m impressed, we always hear that Dutch is SO HARD to learn for non-native speakers.
Genevieve August 24, 2011, 10:18 am
I keep hearing it too, and I think Dutch people started to believe it… but compared to German or French, it’s much easier! The rules make sense, there’s very few exceptions- ok, the pronunciation is difficult, but once you’ve practiced that harsh cappucino machine sound, it’s smooth sailing. You know, when I was attempting to learn it by myself, I had such a hard time figuring out the right pronunciation for CH and G, and combining any of these with an R next to it was giving me tongue cramps. So, jokingly, I asked him if there was any word that had all three of those together. He thought about it for a second and says “Gracht.” I’m like “WHAT?!?! That’s horrible! Hopefully, that’s not used very often, what does it mean?” Well, of course, it means canal! I’m pretty good at pronouncing it now!
fairhaired child August 24, 2011, 2:33 am
I haven’t read most of the responses but here goes:
I can kinda understand what you are going through though. It IS tough to learn a new language and it can be kind of frustrating when they speak something else around you and you have no way of really being involved in what is being said etc. So pretty much you look dumb standing with a blank/angry look on your face. It sucks.
My friend is/was currently experiencing that same issue. She moved to another country for grad school – though she spoke some of the language before hand, but the area in which she is in has a different dialect and she’s not extremely fluent (but can understand the gist of things if people slow down when they talk). When she first started school she kind of got shunned for “forcing people to talk in english” even though her grad school program was a science degree specifically geared to foriegn students and was supposed to be taught in english (though apparently most professors still taught in German if there wasn’t a native/fluent english speaking person in the class- and made a stink about “having to redo their lectures in English”). At first it was rough for her, but she made attempts to ask people to correct her on her german pronunciation etc. She also asked people what was more comfortable for them, and if they DID chose German she stated “I hope that you wont get offended if I ask sometimes for you to repeat it in English.” Now her and her new friends flow back and forth in English/German in the same conversation, because they now understand somethings are harder for her to grasp (jokes etc) and that they too want to brush up on their English more.
However, I do agree with Wendy, it would have been more well prepared of you to have learned more of the language (through your boyfriend or other resources – such as online translations, even if you taught yourself words by looking at a translation-dictionary!) prior to your move. Or to at least be able to say in their language “I’m sorry if I say something wrong in your language, I’m new to learning it.” As well as “I didn’t understand that, could you repeat it again and translate it for me in English so I can learn the phrase?” Something as simple as those two statements would take you a long way into learning more, and pleasing the locals because its shows that even if you do butcher the words horribly, that you are willing to work on it and try to fix how you say things.
fairhaired child August 24, 2011, 2:53 am
I also studied abroad in Austria for a Month. And while my classes were in English, we also needed to learn basic German in another class, and I tried to immerse myself as best as possible in the culture. Such as – I practiced most of my German in shops especially bakeries or food places, or just walking down the street with another friend and pointing at random objects and stating the color, or what the name was in German (picture 2 girls in their 20s saying random colors and numbers proudly as they walk around town – probably hilarious to the locals)
I also would ask people to repeat themselves, and stubbornly tried to say things in German even though most locals under 30 would laugh at me and say that they’d rather talk to me in English because my accent was so horrible in German. I also did a lot of “how do you say..” to people I’d meet. My German still sucks, but I can hold a conversation with a child in an airport if they speak German (and still they kinda make fun of how I struggle lol but that’s ok) and I can read things in German and get the gist of things.
Princess Bananahammock August 24, 2011, 9:26 am
As much as people in other countries may seem to speak English perfectly to YOU, many people are still self-concious about their language skills. Think of how self-concious you are when you try to speak this “obscure” language. Your BF’s friends are just as self-concious. You can set people at ease by making a genuine effort to speak their language. Often, they’ll then be more comfortable speaking English to you or at least translating portions of what they said that you couldn’t understand. You’ll end up having a crazy hybrid conversation, but you’ll be communicating and actually endearing yourself to your BF’s friends.
ApplePancakes August 24, 2011, 6:43 pm
I agree with Wendy here. It is the LW’s responsibility to do the assimilating. I was in a situation like this years ago too. I lived with my European boyfriend at the time, in a house full of Spaniards and Italians. My Spanish was decent, but I still had a lot to learn. Eventually, my Spanish got remarkably better, and like the other comments said, it does become a crazy hybrid of languages. It was an incredibly fun experience, but I found myself feeling like the LW too sometimes in the very beginning. I think it’s important to recognize that feeling and use it to fuel your commitment to learning more about the language and the culture, and to NOT use it to blame anyone for feeling left out. That feeling of being ‘left out’ in a foreign country is universal, and it is the best way someone can learn the language. Because it really becomes a kind of a sink or swim situation. LW, you jumped into the pool, no one pushed you in, but you’re sinking! So, learn to swim quick! You can learn SO much, but you just have to realize that, at first, it’s going to be really hard, especially if you don’t know much about the language/country to begin with.
Also, like the other comments said, his friends are probably a little self-conscious about their English. They may speak it very, very well, but speaking it with a native-English speaker can be intimidating. That boyfriend I lived with and many of his friends were self-conscious about their English, even though they all spoke it very well. You moved to their country, you need to put forth more effort to get to know them, and make them feel comfortable talking to you in either language.
You may want to tell your boyfriend that you’re feeling discouraged with the language barrier, and how it is making you feel like an outsider, because he may have felt that way too while he was staying in the US and you can help each other through it, but by all means, don’t hold him responsible for it. When you start your language classes, ask him or even one of his friends to practice with you, don’t be afraid to ask them to define words, or explain customs you don’t understand (as much in their language as possible) and I’m sure they will all happily help you to learn more about their culture if you just put yourself out there. You really have a priceless opportunity on your hands! Don’t waste it feeling resentful.