Expat Language Learning Mishaps (and Why They’re Ok!)
Contributing Author: Simone Kynaston
Expat language learning mishaps occur very frequently! We’ve heard our share of funny - and embarrassing - stories from expats learning a second language. Simone is living in The Netherlands and valiantly pushing through the challenges of learning another language. Whether you’re an empathetic expat or just here for a laugh, enjoy her tale of language learning woes.
I bark on about the perils of learning a second language. It really is a risky game; full of hidden grammatical twists and idiom induced turns. My pro tip for today is: you should be ready to have a laugh at your own expense, even if you are a language whizz.
I’ve been learning Dutch properly now (as in, I go to Dutch classes), for just under a year. Best move I made, after self-teaching for approximately a year and a half before that, and I'm working towards my first Diploma.
You may or may not be thinking: wow, she must be pretty good at that language by now.
That statement’s both correct and incorrect at the same time.
You see, whilst, yes, I almost have the basics down… I still make a lot of dumb mistakes. Dumb as in, remembering exactly the right way to conjugate a verb right after you said it incorrectly, as well as dumb as in, giiiiirrrl, what are you saying?
Expat Language Learning Mishaps Setting the Scene
Picture the scene: it’s Sunday, and the weather’s randomly glorious. You’re in the north of Friesland eating taart and sipping tea. It’s party time.
You’re a bit overdressed in jeans and a long sleeved top, which, although bares your shoulders (which are now becoming slightly sunburnt), is not quite cool enough. It’s warm. At least you put sandals on, I guess.
It’s the ‘north of Friesland’ part that begins the whole ordeal.
I may be learning Dutch, but I haven’t begun to learn the separate language of Frisian, which is spoken almost exclusively in this part of the country.
I can’t understand a word of what’s being said, and although people at the party asked if they should speak Dutch for my benefit, I was completely outnumbered and didn’t want to be ‘that person’. I told them to go ahead and carry on in their language; after all, it’s up to me to get down with the lingo.
Second Language Mishaps
The Moment of Panic
Part way through the party, my mother-in-law takes a seat next to me. She can tell I’m lagging, and wants to have a little chat, in Dutch, thank God.
I want to tell her just how annoying I find it that I haven’t really picked up on Frisian AT ALL in the entire time that I’ve resided in the province. There’s just something about it. It’s akin to Welsh. I mean, the odd word you recognise is thrown in every so often so it’s almost decipherable, but not really, if you follow my drift.
She asks me how I am, and looks at me kindly, clearly understanding that her taart eating, tea drinking mute of a daughter-in-law is spending way too much time on her phone at a party and feels a little sorry for herself.
This is where I make my mistake. It slips out so easily yet in complete slow motion.
“Ik verveel me…” I begin. It comes out confidently.
Wait, something doesn’t quite sound right about the beginning of that sentence. And now I’ve stopped: so it’s a completed thought. It lingers in the air above my face, begging me to see the problem.
She nods, kindly. “Ja, is toch wel lasting voor je, he…”. She’s telling me that she understands it’s difficult for me. But no, what have I said? I look over to my left, where my boyfriend sits. He looks a bit perplexed, but maybe the sun’s in his eyes.
“What have I just said?” I ask, flitting back to my native tongue with a hope that I don’t mess up any more than I feel I just have. My voice is a bit squeaky. Panic rises in my throat.
“I’m bored.” He replies.
What I actually hoped to say was, “Ik vind het vervelend…” which translates to “I find it annoying…”.
My actual intentions for the conversation were to suggest that it’s annoying that I haven’t been able to learn any Frisian yet, rather than completely murder the party’s host with words through my insolent outcry of “I’m bored.”
Expat Language Learning Lessons
It’s Time to Backtrack
I’m panicking. I mean, she answered me so kindly, when I’ve clearly just provided evidence that I am in fact, three years old and tired of the festivities. She handled me like a pro.
My hands begin to waft the air in front of me with sheer horror and alarm. “I’m so sorry!” I cry out – still in English. “Ik bedoel… I mean… Ik bedoelde dat niet! I didn’t mean that!”
Luckily, she knows me pretty well, and isn’t ready to cut me from the family just yet. Good thing, too, otherwise the car journey home could’ve been a bit awkward.
Learning a Second Language as an Expat
If you’re struggling with learning a language at the moment, keep going.
If you’re wondering if it’s going to be difficult to learn a new language, it kinda is.
But actually, when I think back to this story now, it makes me smile. The English side of my family laughed at my expense, which helped me relax about the whole affair.
It’s not always the easiest thing to become confident in a second language, but there are plenty of experiences along the way that will make you chuckle, and you better believe that never again will I make the mistake of mixing up the words “verveel” and “vervelend” (which I think you’ll agree, look pretty similar).