Once upon a time, I was naïve. I believed in the myth: “If you lived in a city, you would become fluent in that language.” I never experienced language barrier or cultural shock before and people always talk about how ‘immersion’ is so easy. You always hear how people say that when you’re immersed in the language, you start picking it up and voila! – one day you become fluent!
I really believed it and the first chance I got, I took it. That opportunity arrived in 2012. I was given the opportunity to work and live in a small French city and I thought, this is it! No one would speak to me in English so I would learn so quickly and be proficient.
Well, let me tell you: I was wrong. I was so wrong.
That one year became the most isolated year I have ever experienced in my life. Language learning was nothing but easy.
These were the three mistakes that I made while living abroad:
Language Learning takes Effort and Time
Language learning is just like anything else. It does not come without hard work. It takes effort, dedication and a lot of time. Trying to pull words that you never used before in your life does not happen miraculously. Just because I hear words everyday, it does not mean I understand. Heck, I didn’t even know the context of what was going on most of the time!
To help me survive in the city, I used to have several dictionary apps on my phone. When I went to the grocery stores, I would pull out my phone and literally have to look at words that I did not know to understand the packaging and making sure this is the product I was looking for.
Simple, mundane tasks suddenly became difficult and confusing. Even something like asking directions, I had to “string words” together (i.e. looking up the dictionary) before even daring to open my mouth. Slowly through these practical and contextual acts did I finally remembered some vocabulary and sentences in the long run. And yes, I finally did learn some French!
The Expat Bubble
It’s easy to be an expat and to stay within your own expat bubble. I get it. When you don’t speak the language, making friends can sometimes seem impossible. It’s natural to want to stay in your ‘comfort zone’ – to have friends who are in similar situations as you, someone who speaks English and eats the food that you are accustomed to. It makes life easy.
But if you’re going to live a life that is no different than the one at home, then really, what’s the point of living so far? Why did you travel miles and miles away to be in a new life? Aren’t you there for an adventure? The problem is when you stick to the expat bubble, you do not learn very much about the local culture. You go to the expensive Western restaurants, get your burger and pasta fix, and then go home to the Internet and be connected to the rest of your friends at home. Then when you leave the city in a few months or in a few years, you really don’t know anything about the local people or the city.
Isn’t that so ironic?
The Curse of the Internet
The Internet can really be a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it connected me to my family and friends via social network and Skype. On the other hand, it was an easy escape route. When I was on the Internet, nothing on the outside world mattered.
Suddenly, life was easier. I had no more language barrier and I was comfortable. Too comfortable. It was the same trap as the expat bubble – I was in my own world.
Sure, it was great to stay connected, but in order to enjoy the experience of living abroad, I need to be out there. Not on my computer screen. I think that was a big lesson: to strike a balance between the inside and outside world.
In travel blogs, we all hear about the amazing things in moving to a new city, a new country and how they experienced a new culture. Sure, it can be amazing, but no one ever said it was easy. There is nothing in life that doesn’t come with a price. I wish someone told me about the difficulties that I could face, and the different hardships I could experience.
But only a personal experience is the most authentic one.
I know now, nothing could have prepared me. I just had to see it myself.
And I’m glad I did.