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How We Communicate

This rather unique Expat Experiences entry is a series of interviews by two long-term travelers. Hope and her husband took a RTW gap year in 2008, and Hope is currently re-establishing her law practice in Albuquerque after returning from life as an expat in Florence, Italy, where her husband worked for a year. Bobbi and her husband are a year into their nomadic expat lifestyle, currently slow-traveling and living throughout southern Africa.

How well do you speak the language(s) where you’re living/traveling abroad?

Hope: Now that’s a good question! There are times where I think I speak the language (Italian) passably, and other times where I can’t seem to get a correct word out. It’s next to impossible to be objective, but I think one would say that while I absolutely am not fluent, I know enough of the language to communicate most needs and ideas if given enough time and patience. In the past year I have definitely gained an overall understanding of how the language works (verb tenses and conjugations), though I have a far smaller vocabulary than I would like. (And while I theoretically understand the grammar principles, I have nowhere near mastered them, causing me to butcher the language continually).

In order to get to this point, I have been attending various language schools since before we moved here. I started with intro Italian at the local continuing ed course, then went to Bologna for 6 weeks to study at a language school I had discovered on an earlier trip. I continued with infrequent skype lessons with my teacher from Bologna until we moved. Once in Florence, I checked out many language schools, originally starting with one of the more tourist-oriented (and expensive), and eventually settling on a school aimed more at immigrants (and much less expensive). I could see a marked difference in the learning curve of both the younger students as well as students from countries whose languages more closely relate (Spain, France, etc.). As someone used to being at the top of her class, language school was a sometimes frustrating and almost always humbling experience. I hope to try and maintain my language, but it is so much easier to do so when immersion and necessity force the learning process.

Bobbi: Unless it’s an English or Spanish-speaking country (and sometimes even in those!), I don’t speak the language. Historically, when traveling I studied language tapes to learn a few basics before I arrived, and we began that process before leaving for Europe last summer. I soon realized, however, that breaking down an entire household and preparing to live on the road for two years, all while working full time, was probably enough to pile onto my plate, so I dropped the Italian lessons and decided to wing it.

The same has held true now that we’re on the road. I enjoy studying languages and have envied Hope for being in one place long enough to really dig into a language. But unlike many gap-year or RTW travelers, KC and I have not planned our travels in advance and we work fulltime. Much of our free time, which otherwise might be available for studying languages, is spent working, researching and selecting our next destination, and arranging plane tickets, housing, and internet connections. Pretty quickly, I gave myself permission to limit my foreign language skills to learning numbers, greetings, and the polite words (please, thank you, and I’m sorry).

How has your ability to speak or not speak the language affected you?

Hope: Honestly, I think my language skills have caused me the most difficulties this past year, both practically and emotionally. While I can speak the language well enough to order lunch or take care of mailing a package, higher level and difficult conversations elude me. In the States talking and (usually) being understood were a given and not something that (usually) required undue effort or emotional toil. Much to my dismay, In Italy, while there were folks who could tell I am a reasonably intelligent person just having difficulty communicating my thoughts in Italian, there were a few who assumed I was an idiot. I can think of many times I knew what I was talking about, but because I did not communicate in fluent Italian the person to whom I was speaking ignored my communication, told me things you would tell a child, or was just downright rude (i.e. hung up the phone on more than one occasion). I think those were the times I felt the most isolated and “down” in Italy. It really got me thinking about the difference between our intellectual and communication abilities, and thinking about folks like Helen Keller and Stephen Hawking, taxi drivers in NY who were engineers or doctors in their home country…..

Bobbi: I think this is probably one of the biggest differences between Hope’s long-term stay in Florence and my shorter stints in various countries. I’m primarily living in a tourist’s world: When we rent apartments, they’re furnished and we don’t have to hook up utilities. I don’t have to navigate the immigration system for a residence permit or set up a bank account in a foreign language. Language barriers are mere inconveniences to KC and I, and usually make for a funny story once the moment has passed.

Share a story where language has either created a problem or helped you in the past year

Hope: I think one of the gifts I was given over the past year was to have two very kind and intelligent (though very different) Italians with which to do language exchanges. Language exchanges basically consist of getting together and talking in one language part of the time and the other for the remainder, with each duet deciding how formal, how much correction, etc. they want.

While the ability to speak English was not always a benefit here, it was a valuable commodity to some. I found one of my language exchanges (a lovely young women who both teaches Italian and works for an agency that helps companies moving folks to Italy [many of whom speak English]) through a forum on “expat blogs.” I had actually almost given up by the time I found her as my previous attempts were somewhat comical. A couple resulted in no-shows and one in meeting with a gentleman who (due to my lack of understanding of Italian names) I thought was going to be a woman (and my gut told me he was interested in more than speaking English). Meeting my other language partner happened more organically – he swims at the same pool I did and is a friendly/outgoing person (to date he is the only person I have ever had a conversation with at that pool). He is an older gentleman and a retired lawyer, so we had a commonality to start and discovered a shared enjoyment of discussing politics and culture.

Honestly, he did most of the talking, but it was wonderful to sit and actually have a philosophical conversation with an Italian who, despite my terrible language skills, treated me as an intellectual equal.

Bobbi: Possibly the closest I come to dealing with “real life” in a foreign language is a trip to the post office.

One day in Turkey I visited the post office to mail some souvenirs. The entire episode was a perfect demonstration of language barriers, as I first stood in the wrong line since I couldn’t read the signs above the counters, then I got a grumpy postal worker who refused to mail any of my boxes and I wasn’t able to communicate effectively to ask for an explanation.

The fact that there may not have been an explanation is in itself a lesson in foreign language difficulties: I took the boxes to another postal branch the following day and mailed everything without any problems. So why did the first clerk give me such a hard time? I can take a guess from an experience I had at home years ago: I stood in line behind a foreign tourist and when my turn at the counter came, the clerk was complaining, “if they’re going to visit our country then they should speak our language.” So maybe I just had a very ordinary experience in the life of a traveler who can’t speak her host country’s language.

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