It is difficult to describe the feeling I have when being in a country whose language I do not speak. It is a crazy mixture – the fear of the unknown, the excitement for new things, the feeling of helplessness when being lost. The first time I remember this feeling was on a ski lift in Tyrol, Austria. I was maybe 10 or 11 years old and in my ski group was a girl from Australia. I really wanted to talk to her, it was so cool to meet somebody from this country on the other side of the world. I had so many questions – but could not ask any. I had learned a bit of English by then, but it was not yet enough for a real conversation. I knew I wanted to become better at English – I wanted to be able to talk to anyone. (I am a talker and I hate nothing more than being forced to be silent, which is very helpful when you learn a new language.) When I later started travelling alone within Europe, I got a first taste of what it feels like to not be able to communicate. I had to be creative, use my hands and gestures and maybe make up some similarities between my mother tongue German and other languages such as French or Spanish. But nothing prepared me for the experience in a country where I could neither speak nor read.
Before I went on my exchange semester in China, somebody told me that I would feel like an illiterate. How this person was right – even though the main street signs and subways stations are also written in the “Hanyu Pinyin”, the transcription into Latin script, I felt completely lost. When I arrived in China, I was not able to memorise the characters yet, as I had not learned the system about how to write the characters. They just looked like pictograms I had difficulty to remember. And my ability to speak was also quasi-non-existent. I had taken a beginner’s course which clearly had not prepared me. We had to learn how to go buy a cassette tape. This was 2007, and even back then, nobody bought cassettes anymore. I could not even say that I am lost or that I wanted to buy a plane ticket.
When I arrived in Beijing, I took a taxi to the campus. This was long before smartphones and Google Maps; Google Translate was wishful thinking. All I had was a piece of paper where a Chinese friend had written down the name of my university and the dorm. I had to trust that taxi driver blindly, taking me through this enormous city, chatting away in Chinese. I smiled, I had no idea what was going on, but I just remember that he was really friendly and very patient. The campus was big and we arrived at the completely wrong gate. It was during Chinese New Year, therefore, the campus was completely empty and there was nobody to ask for directions. But in the end, we somehow made it.
My next challenge was to buy a local SIM-card. Of course, I ended up walking in the complete wrong direction at first, I had to ask locals how to find a store – I ended up explaining with my hands and drawing on a notepad. I finally made it to a store and was glad to find a person who spoke a bit of English. And then I was hungry… I admit, I went to McDonald’s for one of my first meals. It was right after my adventure of buying a SIM-card and it had been a lot in one day. When I entered the place, it felt like it went silent. I felt the looks, I was the only “laowai” (foreigner). I went to the counter, smiled at the person and pointed to Nr. 2 on the menu. I said “er”, which means “two” and used the typical hand sign with my thumb and index finger which we use in the West. But she kept saying “meiyou, meiyou” (“don’t have”). I got frustrated, nobody understood me in that country. I clearly saw it on the sign, there was a Nr. 2. It also did not help that her “meiyou” kept attracting the attention of everyone in the restaurant. After some time, I got frustrated, marched behind the counter, took a burger and left some money on the counter. I sat by the window, looking out into this foreign city and, I admit, I cried. I felt tired, helpless frustrated – how would I ever get around here? And how would I ever learn that language?
Fast forward three months and I had become the “translator” of our exchange student group. I went to language school every morning, five days a week and I did not shy away from talking to anyone – I chatted with the taxi drivers, the street vendors, the teachers. I overcame my perfectionism and just talked, no matter if I made mistakes. As long as everyone somehow got the idea of what I was saying, I was happy. I even found out why that woman at McDonald’s said they did not have Nr. 2 – my Western sign for “two” had meant “eight” in Chinese and they only had four menus… I am not going to lie, learning that language was tough. More than once, I just wanted to give up. But somehow, it became a challenge. I met so many Chinese friends who spoke English really well – if they can do it, why should I not be able to do it the other way around?
A few years later, I lived in Shanghai and Chinese had become my working language in addition to English. I was able to read business case studies and I was not scared and nervous anymore when a local started talking to me. How did this happen? Effort and drill. Of course, you may say that there was also some sort of talent. Maybe; but, honestly, I do not like the excuses of some expats that “they are not language people” or that they “had a job and no time for that” (well, I had one as well…) or that “it simply was not necessary to learn the language”. Let me explain why I do not like these excuses:
Firstly, when immigrants come to Europe, the first thing which is asked from them is to learn the local language. Otherwise, they are not considered to be integrated. Why can we demand this in the West but when we are expats and guests in other countries, this argument is easily forgotten? But I have one even better example relating to talent and drill:
I went to a language school in Thailand and in my course, there were people from all sorts of backgrounds – students, retirees, expats, stay-at-home partners – with different educational backgrounds and from all kinds of countries. Learning Thai is probably as difficult as Chinese – again, there is another script and it is also a tonal language (make it five tones because the four tones in Chinese were not hard enough). There were people who had never learned another language; some did not even speak English. Yet, we all had to take the same tests which were really challenging. As most people’s visa depended on these tests, studying hard was the only option. There simply was no excuse of “being too busy” or “not being a language person”. And guess what – most people passed because they put in the effort. You could tell that some found it easier than others, but after a year of studying, you could see the progress of everyone. Furthermore, there is no such thing as “no need to learn a local language”. It is a matter of respect for me, even if it is broken conversation, but I always feel really uncomfortable if I stay in a place for a while and am not able to lead a basic conversation. I rarely feel lost now. Even when I do not speak the local language, I remind myself that I survived travelling through China without any fancy tech devices. If I could do that, I can do so many other things.
I am writing this down because maybe I can encourage you to venture out and try to learn a new language. Even if it is just the basics for your next holiday. Not only does it make it much easier to get around, but also will you experience your trip very differently. And it will also make us all more humbled and more forgiving when someone comes to “your country” and is lost and struggling with a new language and culture.