While traveling, living, studying and working abroad, I have experienced many perks and disadvantages of being a native English speaker born in the United States.
A few notable perks I have experienced:
>> Most individuals born abroad (outside of the United States that is) have learned some or are learning English. So, if English is your first and only language, you can rest assured that you can at least order a meal with great success using your English skills anywhere in the world.
>> Currently, I live in southern Germany, and I’m enrolled in a two-year yoga teacher-training program. Fortunately, yoga literature is often written or translated first into English, which makes learning and studying fairly effortless.
>> I can find work teaching English anywhere in the world for a modest but acceptable salary. That means there is always a backup plan if my yoga teacher training doesn’t work out.
The disadvantages are many, especially when studying and practicing my foreign-language skills in a non-English speaking country where negative history exists surrounding some sort of English or American “mission” from the past.
In my travels, I have heard:
“American women are easy, and they all act like the women on the MTV videos.”
“American high-school education is equivalent to a 7th grade level in ‘our’ educational system, unless you’ve gone to university.”
“English is the easiest language you can learn.”
Plus, I have been asked some unexpected questions and received a few off-handed comments:
“Do you have one of those big-assed refrigerators?”
“What did you do with your gun when you moved to Europe?”
“I want to visit the US. I want to go to Florida for Spring break (with a twinkle in his eye).”
“American cuisine is hamburgers and pommes, right?”
“I can speak English with you, because I know that Americans are not able to learn foreign languages.”
“Why aren’t you fat like all of the other Americans?”
Occasionally, after mumbling something that no one understands, someone automatically corrects me using really simple words, because they want to be sure that I do understand. (Okay, not a question or comment but a common practice)
I will admit that initially I got fired up from these comments, and today I still get pissed if I don’t stop myself.
With much time spent in reflection, I now understand that just like anything else related to cultural awareness, there are misunderstandings; to dispel those, you have to be true to yourself.
For example, I have dedicated a lot of time and effort into learning German, even though it didn’t really fit into my life goals or plans. Why did I do it? Because I respect the people there, and besides, I want to know what the ladies laughing two seats behind me on the tram find so funny (among other things).
And if you truly want to learn a language while abroad, you have to be proactive, really proactive, and demonstrate how important learning the language is to you.
Below are a few tips to help you deal with language and cultural barriers.
Hopefully, they will allow you to easily integrate, speak the language of the country you are visiting, and be generally respected for who you are and not for the country from which you were born.
1. Take a language class right off the bat. In some languages, the grammatical structure of the language is so complex that you really have to learn how to put it together first. An intense class, which spans over a long period of time (three—four months) and is structured and focused more on active language, is best. Tell your teacher you do not want translations and that you can practice reading and writing at home.
2. Join a group, a sports group or a yoga class. Kinesthetic learning is so helpful. You will start to identify words your body instinctively knows.
3. Don’t get upset if your yoga or sports instructor speaks to you in English, even if it is embarrassing. They may not realize that it is your body, not your mind, that hasn’t learned the movement. They might think that you were not able to hear or understand the words. Or, they might just want to practice English. Let it go!
4. Be active with the language. You will probably only pick up a percentage of what is going on in the conversation at first. For those things you do understand, show interest, make a short comment, and no one will feel like you are not following. This allows you to practice more.
5. Do not take offense to stereotypes. People may not realize that what they say is offensive. We all have stereotypes we connect to people from other countries (I don’t think examples are necessary), so try to see it from their perspective.
6. Be adamant about speaking the language with your new friends. If they are good friends, they will understand that you need the practice more than they do, since you are living in their place. Daily life language needs trump vacation English if you are proactive and show interest.
7. Do not expect to say be able to say everything you want to say when you want to say it. You will have to learn to stop and then speak, which, in our modern age of blurting out every thought, could actually prove to be an effective training tactic.
Kristen Sikorsky has been living in southern Germany since 2009 and has practiced yoga since 2004. Kristen is currently enrolled in a two-year Yoga teacher-training program while working as a freelance English teacher. When not on her mat or in front of a whiteboard, Kristen enjoys jogging, biking and learning Capoeira. She earned a BA in Spanish from Virginia Commonwealth University, speaks German and is learning Italian. In the near future, Kristen hopes to combine her language, teaching and yoga skills with some Capoeira elements to open a studio for language and sports.
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