5 Things that Happen after You Live in a Foreign Language for a Long Time



I recently read an article on the 7 things that will happen after living in another country for 10 years. The writer made some very funny and very accurate observations in terms of national identity, loyalty, and even language.

I commiserated with some of her points, especially when relates to eventually feeling like a foreigner in my own homeland.

While it was an interesting article, it was written by a woman who moved from the U.S. to the U.K. So, aside from tricky northern dialects, occasionally differing lexicon (boot of a car, lift, flat), idioms that make no sense (Bob’s your fucking uncle?), and prepositions, there was no linguistic difference.

So I put together my own list of things that happen after you live in a different language for a long time. If you have experience with this, please feel free to add your thoughts and points in the comments.

You become a language chameleon

By this, I mean that you become very versatile in terms of using your native language. At the first hint of linguistic misunderstanding, you can instantly grade your language, describe complex concepts and things with basic adjectives, and get your point across using 1 syllable words.

Additionally, you are far more aware of what kinds of words, phrases, and grammar pose difficulty for non-native speakers of your language and you avoid them or take steps to make sure they are understood.

You speak Pidgin

But becoming a language ninja also comes with a negative side. See, as you make small tweaks in your language to be better understood, those things become habits. Additionally, the natives where you live speak a version of your language that is influenced by their language. This leads to English with minor, consistent errors. We call the Czech version of this Czenglish.

Examples of Czenglish are: How does it look like? I am in stress. I need those papers until Friday. The nature. Don’t you want to meet?

Furthermore, you are probably learning (or at least using) their language. So after a while, instead of just having your own language in your head, you now have a pidgin version of it too, not to mention another language’s grammar rules, vocab, and skills sets that you have to use on a daily basis.

The effect is not universal. But I have found that my English-native Czech speaking friends and I occasionally slip in little tidbits of Czenglish. Essentially, it sometimes feels that as I improve in my second language, my native one degrades.

Pretty soon I’ll be painting crude animal figures in the Žižkov tunnel. And those animals will speak a different language. And I’ll understand them, because…

You learn that animals speak different languages

Czech cats say “mňau,” cows say “boo,” dogs say “huff,” and so on and so on. Czech animals all speak a different language from their American, Mexican, and German counterparts. Once a person living in a foreign language realizes this, they may become a little obsessive. You listen to the animals in your home country closely, observing in a freakishly quiet voice, something like: “They really do speak a different language.”

Well, I did anyway, but I am not the only one.

One late summer night, my friend Lee called from his house outside of Prague. In front of his home runs a small brook, and in the summer that brook is home to zillions of chorusing frogs. He informed me that he was standing outside, enjoying a cigarette, and then shouted: “Czechs frogs really do say ‘Kvák Kvák!’” He held the phone up then, I guess, because I only heard the distant singing of tiny amphibians. “Do you hear!? I can’t believe it. It’s true.”

Laugh if you want, but living in a foreign language means you start to understand that animals have their own language. And it freaks you out.

You enjoy homeland security

Surely, living abroad anywhere takes its toll culturally and personally, but living in a foreign language is extremely difficult at times. Even if you speak the language very well, there are bound to be things you don’t understand and coping with those things are a bear. If your language level isn’t proficient, then you always have the stress of not being certain that you’ll be able to handle an interaction at, say, the bank or a governmental office.

While that is a difficult reality, I have found that when I come back to the U.S., my confidence level is through the roof. Walking into a shop, office, any place, I know that there is nothing I won’t be able to deal with in terms of language. It’s quite a boost. However…

You learn that understanding sometimes sucks!

So in a pub or on a tram, I can understand the Czech being spoken around me. But the thing is, I have to concentrate on listening to understand. I do not understand Czech the same way I unconsciously and automatically understand English.

As a result, I can sit in relative ignorance to the white noise happening around me. I can read, sit and relax, and ignore whatever is being said. And, as we all know, lots and lots of people who speak at volume in public are saying very very dumb things. So this is at times a blessing.

In the U.S., pubs, diners, buses are all a loud box and opinions and thoughts that I fully understand and, worse, cannot not hear. And, as we all know, lots and lots of people who speak in volume in public are sayingvery very dumb things. So this is at times a curse.

But if it gets to be too much, I can always call them horrible things in Czech.

This is absolutely not an exhaustive list, so if you’re an expat or have some experience with living in a foreign language for a long time, please add your thoughts!

  1. #1 by Simon on July 1, 2016 - 9:10 am

    After 6 years of living in Prague it’s an absolute truth that my Czech is rubbish and my English is getting worse.

    I absolutely know what you mean about “tuning out” of the white noise around you. Sometimes a curse but often a blessing

  2. #2 by Pavel on July 1, 2016 - 9:25 am

    Interesting article, Damien. What a useful finding about our frogs, definitely made my day:D

  3. #3 by assignment writing services on September 30, 2016 - 3:05 pm

    Very true. Living in Homeland have many benefits. while living abroad anywhere takes its toll culturally and personally.

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