What it’s like to speak several languages – the good and the challenging

I love learning and speaking foreign languages. To me, it’s like air to breathe (I’m being overdramatic but in a way it is). And I love empowering people to learn different languages!

I thought I wanted to give a little insight into what it means (to me) to speak different languages. As amazing as it is, there’s a few challenges and some funny things happening (see the last point ;)).

Let’s start with the obvious 😉

You’ll be able to travel much more smoothly if you speak the language of the country you are in.

Speaking Spanish has helped me a lot while traveling South-America as I was able to have nice small talk with people who’d help me out when I needed information or when it came down to haggling for prices (because you should if you want a good price). In Japan, I was able to travel to regions with little tourism and always managed to find my way around as I was able to communicate everything in Japanese. In general, I think being able to talk to locals make the trip more valuable as you will be able to get information first hand and learn more about the local culture.

Speaking several languages will help you find friends more easily in other countries and feel accepted and integrated more easily

I do generally think that I get accepted and make local friends rather quickly when I speak their language. These days most people speak English, so it really isn’t that much of a problem when you talk to a person one-on-one, however, once you start hanging out in a group of locals, you feel much better when you can simply tune in with what they’re talking about

It also allows you to follow sports classes and other events/activities more easily, making you feel more connected and at home in the new country. You might also have it easier with local authorities when speaking their language (there can be some ‘racism’ against not speaking the local language in countries at times)

The downside?

As I am not 100% fluent in most languages, people don’t necessarily slow down for me and will end up chatting my ear off, using a lot of technical vocabulary and slang, with me only understanding half of what they’re saying. It is very difficult going back to ‘I know I can speak quite quickly to you and express what I want, but I actually don’t understand you with your slang and speed’. 

When you only know a few words, people often try harder to make themselves understood.

The same goes with regards to ‘working proficiency‘. There were countless amount of times I had people say ‘wow you can use all of these languages for work’. And I had to let them know, that having a working proficiency in a language is completely different from being able to have conversations. Many languages use a different tone in more ‘professional environments’, especially Japanese, which means you have to study and prepare yourself accordingly to that. I am very greatful for example that I had Business English at university for 4 semesters, which was completely different to a regular class.

And because of these reasons, we get to the next point:

Sometimes I feel a little more distant to what I am saying when I am speaking a different language.

After all, this is not my mother tongue and I am ‘practicing’ so in a way I can feel less of the weight of the words I am using. I often have the feeling that I am rather blunt when I speak a language that I haven’t ‘fine-tuned’ yet.

I also feel as if the bonds I form with people who I speak German or English to are somewhat closer than people I speak other languages to as there is more ‘emotional connection’ for me in my native/near-native tongues. Again it usually makes me motivated to study more but it can be a bit of a struggle in the beginning.

You might start talking in a mix of languages and become lazy to think about the real word in the language you’re speaking in.

I have that problem with German, my native language. I don’t speak it very much and speak and think in English 99% of the time. However, when I then speak German, I will often end up throwing in lots of English words, because I expect the other person to understand what I am talking about. As this is often the case, I never actually pause to think about the correct word, which can damage your language ability. I do think however , that, once you take the time to focus on just one language again, you can improve in that regard.

Fun fact: my thoughts also go crazy and appear in all random languages. Though I usually think in English, there are many random words, may they be in French, Japanese or any other languages that pop up in my thoughts as well. I do find it amusing but am also aware of the danger I described above.

The more languages you speak, the harder it is to keep all of them at the level you left off after studying

This one is becoming bigger and bigger for me as I keep adding new languages to my portfolio. I love studying new languages, yet that often comes at the cost of another language. I remember being in Japan, having gotten to a conversational level, when one time I wanted to speak a few sentences of Spanish – and Japanese came out. I was shocked because my Spanish had always been pretty good but I simply couldn’t make the switch at that point. Now that I am in South-America, the opposite is happening and I have trouble keeping up my Japanese.

To overcome this, I spend time daily studying several languages, not necessarily to get much better at them but to keep my current level. That can be pretty time-consuming and challenging, especially to find people to talk to in that language but for me, it is worth it!

Language study has taught me a lot of discipline

To get to where I am at today, I had to learn to create a strong language learning habit. I realized that daily repetition and practice was the key to making steady progress in language learning. I created plans and schedules on when and what to study and have become very disciplined through that. This has also helped me in other areas of life, making me diligent and organized.

One point that people sometimes seem to forget is that it is not only about ‘speaking’ a foreign language:

You can access more global information in its original language

Of course, you have the chance to talk to more people, but what I also find fascinating is that I can do research in several languages or watch movies or documentaries that I cannot find in my mother tongue. Sometimes words get lost in translation, so it is always amazing when I can read/hear information in its original language.

And a little interesting point you might never have thought about:

The digital world and social media environment will notice your multilingual skills eventually .

Your spam might suddenly come in 5 different languages. Facebook might advertise you to work as a Japanese chat-representative or remind you not to forget your ‘Spanish mother tongue’. I am finding it hilarious and sometimes slightly confusing when ads pop all relating to all and in all sorts of languages. At least one thing Facebook hasn’t figured out about me so far 😉

I hope I could give you some insights into the ‘language jungle’ in my brain and probably a lot of other polyglots. I guess we wouldn’t want to have it any other way 😉

I’d love to hear if you have any other thoughts on this, so please comment!

What I learned in 10 years of being abroad

It’s been just about 10 years since I left Germany. Naturally, many people have asked me over the years how I’ve changed and what were some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned. It’s actually quite a hard question to answer and I’ve sat on this post for a while, always coming up with new points to add.

Nevertheless, here are some major points I’d like to highlight. Hope you find them insightful!

It’s impossible to predict what opportunities will present themselves in your future

I remember writing a letter to myself when I was around 12 years old, describing my future life. I haven’t been able to find it but I’m sure I’d describe it something like this: “I will live next to my hometown with 2 kids and a husband in a house with a garden.” 

…which is not exactly where I am today…

However, as a 12-year-old, how many different lifestyles can you imagine? It’s impossible to be aware of all the opportunities that can and will present themselves to you in the future. So how could I have even pictured the life I’d be living now? At every stage in life, I always thought ‘This is it. This is the life I am going to have.’ And then life would always laugh at me and be like ‘and there’s this other interesting way/job/country to try out…’. I’m glad that I’ve been open enough to take these opportunities because they’ve shown me so many different facets of life all over the globe. There’s nothing wrong with having a plan and a direction where you’re heading towards but it’s great to know that there are always other options out there if, where you’re at, doesn’t work out. 

Even the most stable life can fall into pieces. And then you rearrange the puzzle, find some new pieces and create a new picture. It can be scary because you often don’t have the model picture but step by step it becomes clearer and clearer.

You might find hidden parts in your personality that surprised you

I believe every country or place I’ve moved to (and every language I’ve spoken) for a while has brought out a new side in me. I could be writing about this for pages, but let me narrow it down to a few examples.

The most surprising and somewhat shocking one was when I went on a study abroad semester in South-Korea.  

I clearly remember sitting on the bus from the airport to the university, thinking ‘how am I going to survive a semester which is most likely going to turn out to be a big party’ (I was and am not a party person at all). Yet, something about this care-free life I eventually had there and a new environment changed me completely regarding that. You should have seen my friends’ reaction back home when I told them of my fun party-semester. At one moment I was sitting in a cafe in Suwon with a friend who was experiencing the same situation. We were both saying how we felt like we weren’t ourselves and that we felt like seeing us from a different perspective. Later I realized that this was also part of my personality and despite this only being a short phase I’m glad I saw that side of me and embraced it to the fullest.

Japan also brought out another side of me. The one of a person who connected well with kids and her own inner child. Teaching kindergarten was a huge learning curve for me but eventually, I became a bubbly teacher who didn’t mind goofing around, singing songs and doing a full-body workout to keep the class energetic 😉

All this taught me that when I have a thought such as ‘this is not for me. I cannot do that. That doesn’t suit my personality’, I think I should give it a try as long as it fits within my morals. Often my own thoughts about my personality were the ones that put me in a box and limited me exploring my potential and I’m really grateful for this lesson.

The one perfect country doesn’t exist

For everyone who thinks living abroad is the dream and has an image of the one country of their dreams. It is and it isn’t. If you’re working or studying you’re going to end up having a daily routine as if you’d be in your home country. Granted, there are the added benefits of experiencing this in another country, which can feel much more exciting (and which is the main reason why I’m still abroad) but you’ll also get sick, have money problems, break-ups, changes of jobs, car break-downs plus the added difficulty of visa issues, language barriers, and all those quirky, fascinating, yet sometimes annoying cultural differences.

Full-time traveling isn’t always a piece of cake

So you’re taking a year off to travel full-time. You see yourself in the most exotic places, sipping on our cocktail at the beachfront, or hitting mountain tops, feeling as if you were on the top of the world…

Yes, this can definitely be a reality. But the reality is also that you might have a 10-hour bumpy bus ride with multiple bus changes, buses standing still for a few hours due to traffic, mosquitos that love you to bits, food that makes your stomach turn upside down and a person snoring in your dorm so that you end up spending the night scrolling through your phone suddenly missing your friends, your own room, your favorite restaurant that doesn’t give you diarrhea and having everything you need in one place without having to move around. Ok, again, I love my freedom when traveling full-time and I am slightly exaggerating by giving you a worst-case scenario. I am able to create the life that I want by being so independent. But that also means that I am going to come across many things that I am unfamiliar with that create problems I didn’t use to have. And most of the time there won’t be familiar surroundings to help you out and you’re often on your own, wishing you were not. So then why would you go through this? …because

… you will grow in resilience and personal strength

On my first trip to Australia, I almost had a nervous breakdown. I had 3 nights booked in a hostel when I arrived and that was it. I felt so lost, out of place, hardly being able to deal with the fact that I was fired from my first full-time job after just a few days (it was fundraising on commission to be fair and most people were let go rather quickly when not meeting targets). Now I wish I could say that these days I am able to handle any problems calm and composed but I have learned over the past years that problems in other countries have solutions to them just as in our own countries. Things that work differently may be resolved differently but through all those crazy incidents that you might experience you will eventually realize how many obstacles you overcame despite thinking you never would. Living abroad broadens not only your cultural knowledge but also the way you think about life. You find more solutions, different point of views and thus gain trust in that you will make it through.

Top tip: do yourself a favor and get some earplugs. Snoring problem solved (and in the worst case, Spotify will overtone the noise).

 …and learn to be OK with things you’d usually not be OK with

If you’ve read the above, you can imagine that often you have no choice but to accept things the way they are.

Returning home, brimming with new confidence as a changed ‘you’, people might still look at you the same as before.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing but it’s often taken me by surprise. With many good friends, you’ll be able to continue where you left off. Which is an amazing thing and will help you settle faster. Yet sometimes, there is this feeling of ‘didn’t I just change and become a better person yet people treat me the same as before?’ I think your parents will always see you as their ‘child’, your sibling will always see you as older/younger sister/brother. Sometimes it takes some time for people to notice your changes. I have learned not to be frustrated about that and am embracing the familiarity that comes with meeting old friends and family.

Not everyone falls under a culture’s stereotype and you can find your kind of people everywhere

You might stereotype Japanese people as always being polite and never saying what they really think. Germans are seen as blunt as hell. Brazilians as super outgoing. Canadians are the ones who will always excuse themselves… Yet, I have met very outgoing and direct Japanese people, held-back Germans, blunt Canadians, and shy Brazilians. Stereotypes can often give an indicator which side a culture might lean towards, yet remember there are always exceptions and you find your tribe no matter where you live. 

Be yourself, adapt to a culture as much as socially necessary and as much as you are willing to do

I remember being in Japan, overwhelmed by all the traditions and customs and the way people did things differently. Over the years I then adapted many small customs which helped me feel more part of the culture. However, I still made sure to keep traits of me that I was proud of, being more direct than people around me, just making sure I wouldn’t offend anyone, i.e. speaking loudly on the train (a big no-no in Japan and Korea and something that you can definitely learn to adapt to).

I think it can be really fun to be a different person for a while as long as you don’t compromise your own valued character traits. Also, it might be a breaking point of whether you can imagine staying in the country long-term.

Last but not least: Learning the new language of the country can go a long way

This even applies to just learning a few basic words and phrases. You will be able to connect much easier to locals by using some of the language. Many people who don’t travel, don’t know other languages and are very appreciative of the fact that travelers made the effort to learn some of their language.

I am personally hugely passionate about languages and have poured a lot of heart and soul into it and will be happy to write more about my experience in learning foreign languages and how that can make your stay even more authentic and better.

Hello there!

Welcome to my new blog. You might not believe it’s taken me 10 years to finally write about my experiences abroad.

I always thought there are more than enough blogs out there, who’d want to hear my opinion among the millions of opinions out there?

But then I noticed how people have started asking me the same questions over and over again and how I had some information that others maybe didn’t.

So voilà here comes my blog 🙂

I remember starting to travel, thinking I’d become a changed person just like that.

And then I nocticed that I had changed but not as much as I thought I would and not intentionally towards who I wanted to become. And eventually I realized that I actually have to work on myself and not just let time shape me (I know I wanted it the lazy way ;)). So you will find posts on mindfulness (thus my blog’s name), personal development, yoga, meditation and whatever else I can think of! Be curious and open 🙂

So as you can see this won’t just be a travel blog. I am really passionate about all the aspects of being abroad. I will share those through travel stories, travel advice posts and more.

Furthermore, as I am a super passionate language learner (you might call me a polyglot) and an English teacher I’ll also share my language learning strategies, keeping a study habit and motivation 🙂

In case you’re curious: I know English, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese and (Brazilian) Portuguese. All languages are at different levels but I would be able to hold conversations in all of them.

Hope you enjoy reading my blog!