|What picture do you paint of yourself living life
in a second language?
Can your true self ever really shine through if you are constantly communicating in a language that is not your mother tongue? It’s a question that I’ve given a lot of thought to during my time living overseas. I’ve even written on this topic before. (See “How do you say me?” on Expat Harem). I’m not talking about expats who spend a couple of years in a country and then move on, but those of us that have moved overseas to be with a partner for example, who don’t have an end date to their overseas assignment. Those of us who live our daily lives in a foreign language.
Think about it. The situations where not speaking the local language fluently can give someone the wrong impression about you are infinite. Someone tells you of a bereavement but you don’t have the words to tell them how sorry you are, you cannot express the depth of your sympathy in their language. You can’t comfort them in the way you would like, the vocabulary just isn’t there, like it would be in your mother tongue. Do you come across as uncaring or cold, whilst actually your heart aches for them?
You can’t tell your favourite anecdote with the descriptive words and detail you’d like, the one that reveals so much about you. You can’t get that punch line out, tell that joke in a way that shares so accurately your sense of humour. Do you seem distant and humourless whilst the truth is you’d love to be able to share a little more of yourself and you’re actually amusing to be around?
I’m pretty sure that I sometimes (read often) come across as a bit of a klutz to my in-laws. There are times I cannot get the right Dutch words to my tongue in time during a conversation and the result must be that I seem disinterested or that I have no opinion. The truth is I have an opinion on most things, but I can’t always express them in an intelligent manner in Dutch. When I add something in the midst of a conversation with my Dutch family it sounds like a five year old suddenly piped up and said something. I’ve been here so long in the Netherlands now I wonder how much of an allowance they make for me. How much of my awkward communication do they put down to me speaking in a language not my own, and how much do they attribute to who I am, or their view of who I am.
How, in our interactions with others, do we reveal the real us? It is of course not just verbal. We show a lot through our body language (which incidentally can also be a cultural nest of vipers) and the actions we undertake. Putting your arms around someone can say much more than any words at a difficult time. There are ways to show feelings without having the words at our command. However, I do believe that you need a certain level language ability in order to let the real you shine through, to share your depth and let another person in to your inner world.
It’s the reason why my husband and I end up having dual language conversations when the subject matter is complicated or emotionally highly charged – so that we can truly explain how we feel without stumbling around looking for words in a second language, a process that waters our emotions and feelings down, unconciously making some things seem more trivial to the other than the reality.
It’s the reason why professionals recommend that any coaching or therapy you have is done in your mother tongue.
It’s the reason why so many expats complain making friends with the locals is hard. How deep can a friendship be when one of you is always communicating in a language that is learned?
That’s not to say a relationship or friendship conducted in two languages doesn’t work. Far from it. We are living proof that they do work. We develop our own way of communicating with each other. It works. But it takes time, it takes understanding, it means making allowances and giving the benefit of the doubt. All of which are not givens when you are meeting new people, developing new relationships, trying to let others who know nothing about you see a glimpse of your personality, when what they hear is someone tripping over their words in a language that they clearly have not made their own.
Does it matter whether people here in the Netherlands ever know me as I was back in my passport country? Is there a pre-expat me and an expat me? Am I a different person when I talk in Dutch? Is the English-speaking me the real version of me? I don’t know.
What I do know for sure is that I am more reserved in Dutch than in English because my Dutch vocabulary doesn’t stretch as far as my English. I have less to say in a Dutch crowd than in an English group. There is currently a gap between the two personas. And I wonder if it will ever change. And I know that it does matter, at least to me.