10 challenges of being a non-native speaker

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With every language you try to learn, you are opening up common ground with potentially millions of new people. That’s a great thing. But when you have to live your life in that language, you are also opening up a world of uncertainty and struggle. Those foreign words that represent thousands of years of a unique culture can be your enemies as well as your friends.

These are just some of the challenges that come up every day when you are trying to make your way in a foreign language. Next time you speak to a faltering non-native speaker, be kind. They are on a socially painful journey marked by some, if not all of the following trials and tribulations.

  1. The Pained Look. Known to all language learners. Unless you have perfect command of the language and the words flow error-free (there are a lucky few who get to this level), you will regularly come across the pained look when you try to express yourself. The look appears when you are struggling to get to the end of what you want to say, or when you make a mistake, or just because your accent is grating on the listener’s sensitive ear.  It’s a little bit crushing every time.
  2. The Quality Dive. You have reached a level of proficiency that is good enough to get you through almost any situation without drawing attention to yourself or sparking the pained look. You start to feel comfortable, maybe even a tiny bit proud. Then comes a quality dive. Without any warning, you enter a new situation and your language ability suddenly crumbles. It could be small talk at the playground or handing over your car to a mechanic. You will either be unable to find the key words to say whatever banality you reach for, or you will destroy a sentence with mistakes like hand grenades. Once the unravelling starts, it won’t stop until you exit the situation. Crushed again.
  3. You’re Hilarious. This comes when you mix up words and say something completely out of place. These slapstick language moments cause great merriment – to others. Like when I wanted to say insecure but said the word uninsured (unversichert versus verunsichert). Funnier than you’d think.
  4. The Ceiling. Language learning goes in phases. There is the early fun phase where the words are like pieces of Lego and you are the child and you can’t believe you can build sentences. Everything is fresh and fun. This is followed by the hard grind years, where you have to knuckle down and learn difficult things like case endings and verb conjugations and build up your vocabulary to the point of being able to manage whatever life throws at you. Eventually this pays off and you get to a shaky level of fluency, which can sometimes masquerade as real fluency. This I call the ‘look Mum no hands’ phase. From here you think you’ll get to real fluency one day until suddenly, with a blow to the head, you hit the ceiling. You have exhausted your learning ability. Even if you live another fifty years in this country you will never get any better. A chain of mistakes has infected your speech like a virus never to be dislodged. This is where you will stay, a big step short of perfection and comfort, deprived of the ability to be witty or clever forever.
  5. The Nerves. Because of your imperfect mastery of the language, nerves can hit unexpectedly at any time. This often happens when you need to make a phone call and can’t fall back on the support of facial expression and gestures. A task that you would do without the slightest hesitation in your own language – making a dental appointment, ordering curtains – becomes a test of courage. You have to look up words, pace the room and work up the nerve to communicate. It’s humbling.
  6. Out of the Loop. This is where someone refers to a person or event, a book, television show or comic, and you either have to hold up the whole conversation while someone explains to you what Max and Moritz is/was or you have to feign understanding and guess your way across the gap.
  7. Nodding and Smiling. When you didn’t quite understand what the person said but don’t want to do the whole stop and repeat palaver so you smile and nod. This works well most of the time, except when you are rumbled and come across like you either don’t care what the person is saying or are only pretending to understand everything. Cringe. In a group setting you may have to give up for a while until the conversation gets back onto solid ground. Go to a loud place and you turn into your deaf grandmother, hopelessly lost with no choice but to opt out of all the shouted conversations around you.
  8. Not a Whit of Wit. You might be the Oscar Wilde of your own language but in a foreign tongue you have to give up any hopes of being the funny one. Attempts to throw in witty one liners will fall flat, either because your humour doesn’t cross cultural lines or because you didn’t phrase it right. Resign yourself to laughing at other people’s jokes, if you understand them.
  9. Simpleton. You get used to searching for the simplest way to explain something or present an idea. You will not have three or four words to choose from to refine your point. Some contributions you will not even bother trying to make. The less vocabulary you have at your disposal, the less interesting you will be. Welcome to your new personality.
  10. Kids are Cruel. If you think the pained look is bad, try blank incomprehension. Many children cannot accept or believe that an adult is speaking to them incorrectly. Do they help you out, try to meet you half way? No, they are children. They don’t like speaking to adults anyway so they just boycott your efforts and leave you hanging.

The only way to get through all these challenges is with a big helping of patience and a dollop of humility. Learning is a painful process but there are rewards – people who appreciate your efforts, people who love your accent, friendships you would otherwise never have made. And then there are the good days, when you get through twenty-four hours without any of the above happening!

Does this sound familiar? What are your experiences of struggling with a foreign language? Or are you one of the lucky truly fluent few? I’d love to hear from you.

36 thoughts on “10 challenges of being a non-native speaker

  1. Great article! I was in the National Gallery the other day and it’s undergoing massive renovations, so most of it s closed. A group of French tourists behind me were headed towards an area that I knew was a dead end. For some reason I thought I should address them in French, but I wasn’t planning on getting into conversation, as I do not speak the language beyond a few words. ‘Ca c’est ferme,’ I said pointing at the door, which prompted a flurry of questions en francais followed by quizzical looks. ‘Vous ne parle pas francais?’ ‘Un petit peut,’ i apologized before leaving.

    1. Thanks Niall! Good for you making the effort, but isn’t it amazing how quickly you come up against your limitations in another language. Exit stage right 🙂

  2. I’m far from this stage! I really struggle to get motivated to learn German even though I do enjoy it. As a writer, there is always so much more writing to do! And as a full time stay at home mum as well, there just never seems to be enough time. Plus it’s a little disheartening, that we are learning a completely different German to what is spoken around us.

    1. I know it’s hard. I’m convinced Switzerland is the most difficult place in the world to learn German. You’d be better off in Kathmandu taking lessons from a German friend than trying to apply what you learn in class here in a Swiss-German environment. And they all speak perfect English anyway. Very discouraging.

  3. I really enjoyed this article, thank you. I have been in Switzerland for 7 years and thankfully learnt German at university in Germany to a fairly decent level before coming here. However, I feel like it doesn’t even help that much. Each conversation with a Swiss-German feels like a battle that I never win! Then I get chatting to an actual German and my confidence comes back a bit and I think ‘oh my German is not THAT bad after all’. I feel like I have been at the ceiling phase for years though…and don’t know how to change it.
    I completely agree with your reply to Kate!

    1. Good to hear the perspective of someone who learnt German before coming here. The amazing thing is how many Swiss speak English so well after only a fortnight in Brighton or somewhere when they were sixteen. It’s not fair!

  4. Great post, Clare!

    I am Swiss, and I prefer to speak English rather than high German.

    You have many valid points, but PLEASE, no matter how discouraged and inadequate you may feel in a Swiss German environment, remember this:
    Everything you write about here, applies to non-English natives just as much. I never get the Toto / Kansas joke, I have to focus really hard when to use “become” or “get” because they both translate as “bekommen” in German, I NEVER know when it’s “on” or “at” or “in”, etc.

    It is super tough, and everyone who at least TRIES to learn and speak deserves tons of respect!

    1. Thanks Tamara. Of course, you are 100 per cent right. These points apply to everybody trying to communicate in another language. We are all in the same boat 🙂

  5. I know all these situations intimately! I live in the Netherlands and came here when I was past that ideal youthful age for learning a new language. At 45, it’s hard enough, but having learned French at school and not German made it harder. I can get by and as you say, on some days, it goes very well, but yes, every one of these scenarios is painfully familiar! I struggle on, though, and there are some people who are very kind. Some are not, though 🙂

  6. An excellent list. I especially like “Out of the loop.” Even if you know the language well, you still won’t understand all the nuances and references if you aren’t familiar with the culture, history, literature, and entertainment. In English, for example, we talk about a “Goldilocks” economy or a “hail Mary move” or “jumping the shark,” and expect the listener to have read a children’s story, followed American football, and know something about a TV program from 1977. It’s hard to learn a foreign language well enough to always be in the loop, but it’s worth trying.

    1. Don’t forget about the differences between American English and English in other countries. I don’t recognise two of your three examples! But you might not know the meaning of “banjaxed” (broken beyond repair) or “good craic” (enjoyable) or some of the many words used in Ireland for being drunk, like “elephants”, “langered” or “jarred”.

      1. You’re right, Clare, I didn’t know any of the Irish English phrases you mentioned. I would have felt “out of the loop.” You probably know “a Goldilocks economy” – not too hot, not too cold. A “hail Mary move” is a last resort. The term was first used by a football quarterback who said about his game-winning pass that he just closed his eyes and said a Hail Mary.

        “Jumping the shark” is when a TV program is going downhill and the writers throw in a spectacular gimmick. It’s a sign of desperation. The phrase started after Fonzie jumped over a shark while water skiing on Happy Days.

      2. Fascinating to hear about the hail Mary move and the shark. I will try to slip them into conversation with the next American I meet 😊

  7. I agree with everything in this post! I moved to Holland when I was 19, and at first I thought I had an advantage in learning Dutch because I’d studied in German in school. But every Dutch word came out of my mouth sounding German and the Dutch weren’t too keen on Germans, particularly in the border area I lived in. They would be shockingly aggressive to me until I switched back to English. Then it would be all smiles and thumbs up and, “Ah, Ireland. Salmon fishing!” It really concentrated my attention on getting the pronunciation right, however, which left me stumbling along with only points 2-9 to contend with. Well described 🙂

    1. Thanks Anne! Isn’t it funny how every language community has its own sore points. The worst thing is when you don’t realise you’re causing offence.
      I bet every second Dutch person has been on holiday in Ireland. It’s a very popular destination for the Swiss.

  8. I always find that my language skills really come out in force when I’m upset or angry. When I studied abroad in France, we called it Ninja French. In Zurich, I would suddenly have the words to yell at someone in German and be like, it’s Ninja German! I’ve got it! to my embarrassed husband. 🙂

  9. Great article. I definitely do a lot of nodding and smiling and feeling stupid, especially around kids! I’m not at the stage yet but kind of disheartened to read about The Ceiling… I guess I figured one day, one day, MAYBE I’d maybe be fluent and all this would be behind me, ha ha ha – it’s a constant process… 😉

  10. Oh yes, the kids like to give you the blank stare when they know you aren’t speaking correctly. You forgot the “perfect greeting trickery!” You know, when you have perfected the few words needed for the greeting or simple question with such a good accent that they assume you are fluent and start talking rapidly back thus leading to the “pained look’ on your part!

  11. Been there, done all that. Still do some of it. I hate the phone in English never mind in French, and you’re right, you do lose your words much easier in a situation when you can’t wave your arms about or roll your eyes. My favourite faux pas story is my husband’s, when he’d only been here a few months, as a student in Toulouse, and he was trying to fit into the neighbourhood. The little old lady opposite who’d adopted him lost her husband and he went over to offer her his ‘félicitations’ instead of ‘condoléances’. I think she was too upset to notice but he was mortified when he realised what he’d said.

    1. That’s so funny Jane. I have exactly the same mix-up in my first novel in a scene where the main character is attending a funeral in an Irish-speaking area and comes out with the word congratulations when she wants to offer her condolences. So it really can happen!

  12. 1. To the kids, speak in your native language to them. They tend to figure out emotions and facial expressions better than wrong vocal! 2. Humility is learnt the hard way 3. Kudos to all who step out of their comfort zones and make an effort to learn another language. Communication is key, after all, and efforts to speak in an alien language express the desire to communicate. Starts usually, with a smile! Lovely article, I was laughing all along! And then, I caught myself hoping and wishing that many more experience all this. Often, I hear the remark “oh mais vous parlez tres bien français!” and now , I noticed that sometimes while speaking to non native English speakers, I started saying “Aber..du sprichst sehr gut English”…. and cringe after having said that. 😀

    1. Niall, I’m speechless with undying gratitude. Reminds me of the story of John Wayne playing a roman centurion at the crucifixion. His line is: ‘This truly was the son of God’. He delivers his line and the director says, ‘John, can you say it with awe’. Cameras roll again and John Wayne says: ‘Aw, this truly was the son of God’. Don’t know if it’s true but my Dad used to love telling that story.

      1. I’ve heard that story. i don’t know if it’s a legend or not, but it’s a great story. And you’re more than deserving of the praise for your blog!

  13. I really enjoyed your post. I can relate to it to an extent but I think that there is quite a difference between ‘near’ languages and distant ones. When I speak Dutch now (after living here for 16 years) it is not that different to speaking English. To be honest there is not even a transition in my mind any more, I can basically operate in both language systems. Some of the situations you describe would apply to English speakers too going into a new domain (e.g. a patient having no confidence around medical specialists due to their use of specific terminology).
    With languages like German, French and Spanish I still feel essentially the same person and I can tell stories and make jokes in the Irish way. Of course I do lack specific vocabulary and stumble on words.
    Once I am in a ‘far’ language then I really relate to what you say. Although I learned to speak Irish from the age of 4 and I was quite competent by the end of school (A in the Leaving competent) I have never felt fully at home in the language because it is so far from English that you always have gaps (French, for instance, has so much vocabulary overlap that you always find an escape route). Equally with Polish (my wife’s tongue) and Japanese (which I have been learning intensively) I am always falling through the gap and never quite secure.
    The other thing that I think is at play is that everybody needs English and the reverse is not true. That’s why Dutch, Swiss people etc. are so competent at English but quite often they are not particularly good at a third language. I have been learning Frisian lately (the second biggest native language in NL) and many Dutch people look at me like I am mad. They cannot see beyond a purely pragmatic, transactional view of language. As an Irish person my views are obviously coming from a different place. They have what I would prefer (a native language), I have what they want (perfect English), a bit of a Venus/Mars situation.

    1. Thanks for commenting Aidan. You have so many different perspectives there on the different stages and types of language learning. I’m afraid I’m not as fluent in German and French as you are in Dutch.

  14. Sent that reply too soon! I wanted to add that I spoke Irish throughout my childhood and it still feels the most natural language for me to pronounce but sadly my vocabulary has shrunk to very little and I hardly use the language any more.

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