Living in another language

Hélène Rybol is the woman behind the Culture Shock Toolbox, a website for expats and international students – or future ones – and travelers, filled with musings, checklists and mantras. CLEW is happy to feature her musings on living in another language.

So I’ve been thinking about what happened when I started living in another language. Focusing on basics and English, here are a few things that came to mind (by no means an exhaustive list!)

  • I’m sorry…what’s your name? Helen? Heleene? Ellen? Elaine? Eelin? A few weeks ago I actually came across an article titled “Hélène or Helen?”, on how bilinguals borrow words from their other language(s).
  • How do you start a conversation? You need to learn everyday expressions to get conversations going: What’s up? What’s going on? How’s it going? The first time someone greeted me by asking “What’s going on?” I thought this person really wanted to know what was going on at that moment. Learning how to start a conversation also means learning how to respond to those starters.
  • Learning about fruits and vegetables and all related cooking vocab! I bought local cook books, made a list of ingredients (having no idea what some of those were) and went to the local supermarket, strolled through the produce aisle or asked someone. This was often followed by an aaaah – moment. It felt like a mini-adventure, not knowing what I was going to find. Of course I could’ve looked them up online, but that didn’t seem half as fun!
  • Understanding accents. Memorable incident involving butter, which one of my roommates at the time insisted on calling “buh’er”. I was 18 years old, equipped with high school English and not a clue as to what “buh’er” was supposed to be. Also, why was Friends easier to understand than East Enders?


  • Slang. So first I learned the difference between school English and street English. Then I found out that slang is not = slang. Pissed in England is not = pissed in America. I began to understand just how much everyday conversations can teach. Of course slang is just the beginning, a place to start and a gateway to a whole new way of seeing the world and expressing yourself.
  • How do you express emotions? Needless to say, living in another language takes you on an emotional roller coaster. So you’re chock-full of emotions…what do you do with them? Of course we each have our coping mechanisms, but the social approach to emotions also differs in different cultures. And on a personal level, basic vocab won’t cut it: happy, sad, angry, excited. You learn to dig deeper and express emotions and underlying issues more accurately.
  • How do you express courtesy? Depending on where you are the level directness and the kind of thing you say or ask changes…big time! While I was living in Singapore a guy on the subway approached me and asked how much money I earned and where I lived exactly. At first, I was taken aback. It kept happening though, so I asked around and it turned out these questions are considered a polite way to show interest. So courtesy is not = courtesy.
  • Etiquette differs. Depending on where you are you might go from ending a phone conversation by repeating a stretched out ‘ciaaaooo’ to ending it with a barely there ‘bye’…or anything in between.

Taken alone, these might seem like small things. But together they affect os on multiple levels. For a fun read on languages check out Through the language glass: why the world looks different in other languages by Guy Deutscher.


This article was originally posted here (Culture Shock Toolbox, December 2013)

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