Expat’s Frustrations With English Language

One of the things that makes me frustrated so many times is the English language. Don’t get me wrong – I love it, and I love the fact that I am lucky to have learned it and it allows me to live in Manchester, however… sometimes it’s more like “love-hate” relationship. How come? Well, let me explain.

If I’m not mistaken, it’s been 20 years since I started learning it. Quite a lot, right? Two-thirds of my life. You might think “Her English must be brilliant!” Yes, I have heard some native English speaking people saying that, but I would not agree. It might be my perfectionism, but I do still learn the language every day, and I think I will never stop.

Language as a Gateway

I am one of those people who has always thought that languages are one of the best things you can invest your time and money in. It’s one of the most valuable resources one can have. And if I could, I would learn at least a couple of more languages, but I guess I might be a bit too old for that now.

Growing up in a small country like Latvia, one is culturally, educationally and intellectually limited to what the resources available in that specific language can offer. And you guessed it right – it wasn’t many years ago. The opportunities, resources and market are way smaller, hence we get less of anything – books, films, magazines etc. Being as curious as I have always been, I was motivated to learn new languages to broaden my perspectives and to simply be able to consume more information from ‘the outside world’.

Besides learning English and German at school, I picked up Russian while watching TV and pestering my mum with questions like “What does this word mean?” or “What is this letter?” To be fair, my Russian is poor as I have never actually learned it, but living in a country with Russian or Russians on every other corner, I have a basic understanding. I have also tried to learn Polish and French, but that didn’t go that well.

My English skills have allowed me to read books, watch films and TV shows in English and communicate with people from many different nationalities. It has also allowed me to spend a semester studying in Malta, participate in various international youth projects and travel near and far. But most of all, English gave me the opportunity and confidence I needed to make the biggest move in my life – to move to Manchester.

Language as a Barrier

You might guess that the barrier is “If you don’t speak the language, you don’t have the opportunities.” Yes, but it’s not that simple… Knowing a language opens up many doors, however, at the same time it might also be a barrier and cause many misunderstandings and issues.

When you are just consuming information in a different language, you might not feel it much, as it is a one-way communication. But as soon as you communicate with other people, you get to realize the gaps in your knowledge. Or what annoys me the most – that you don’t even know what and how much you don’t know.

One of the best examples to this is the way I and many other Latvians pronounce “dandelion” [the latter part being pronounced similar to French city Lyon]. I’m not sure why we have all learned the wrong way to pronounce it, but I might have an explanation to that. See, the name for the flower in Latvian is “pienene”, and it has nothing to do with lions (translated literally, it would be the milky flower). How could we then know it should be pronounced like a lion? :) And I won’t even start about English place names…

Also, different languages have different structures, and it affects the way we think. What do I mean with this? It has been proven in research that people speaking different languages see the world differently just because the structure of the languages differs. Hence, it affects the way we think and might cause misunderstandings if, for example, a Latvian tries to transfer their worldview into another language like English.

As long as you are able to maintain your confidence, have a laugh about your language mishaps when others are laughing, and are open to learning, all these barriers should become new learning opportunities. And to be fair, we tend to misunderstand each other even when natively speaking the same language.

Language and Brain Power

Bilingualism is a topic I became very interested in since I moved to Manchester and I’m planning to explore it more and share my views on this in another blog post, but there are a couple of things I wanted to mention here.

I believe that knowing more than one language enhances one’s brain power and abilities in an enormous way. If we believe the theory that each language is a whole new way to construct/see the world, it is safe to say that the more languages you know the more ways you have to construct your worldview or understand that of others.

But then again… The more of this brain power you have, the more brain capacity you need to operate with this. Unfortunately, you can’t really upgrade your brain’s RAM. Therefore, sometimes being a bilingual and using two languages on a daily basis can be frustrating and draining. I remember several episodes when during a very stressful and eventful week at work my brain would just ‘shut down’ and I would start blurting something in Latvian when I’m supposed to be speaking in English.

It might get tough and confusing, however, it’s a great ‘workout’ for your brain. And when you catch yourself thinking and dreaming in English, it’s a nice and in a way empowering feeling.

Two Natures of English

Knowing Latvian grammar and having learned that of German and French, I can say that the English language is an easy language (not saying that learning any language is easy – everything is relative). Once you nail the basics, the potential to improve is very high. But there’s another thing that makes it all more complicated… British and American English! I’ll be honest – sometimes it feels like those are two different languages.

When I was living back in Latvia and mostly just consuming information in English or using it to communicate with other foreigners, I never really felt the differences. Yes, I knew the both languages are not exactly the same, however, I didn’t know to what extent.

Now that I’m mostly exposed to British English, it makes me realise how much American English I have consumed up until now, and that the English I have is a hybrid of both. I know I could just pretend that I’m an American (people are saying I have an American accent) and just go with it, but I want others to understand me completely and avoid any possible confusions.

Therefore, I’m trying to learn the British English and recognise the differences between the two. But then again, I kind of speak two different English languages. Or not…

I would love to hear other expats’ experience with being bilingual and struggles with English – feel free to comment below.

Note: This post originally appeared on Expat in MCR (expatinmcr.com) blog which has since been renamed to Dream Chaser (dreamchaserwrites.com).

10 thoughts on “Expat’s Frustrations With English Language

  1. English language is an evolving mechanism. Learning a language is a lifelong process. Even when we read something complicated in our native language, we need a dictionary sometimes. It is absolutely normal to feel frustrated about learning a language, and the little details we keep forgetting even though we studied the rules earlier. Many/much, quite/quiet, complain/complaint and so on are easily mixed up by non-native English speakers. Making mistakes is a part of a learning process. We shall find the way to enjoy learning and have fun with things like British vs American English. All the best to you and thank you for an interesting post! :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment and wishes! :) Yes, the key here is to find ways to enjoy the learning process. Throwing oneself in an adventure like this is challenging, but the learning curve is huge and besides being frustrating, it can be exciting and fun too! And hey, who said we all need to be perfect? ;)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As a native British English speaker myself I’d like to point out, and perhaps offer some encouragement in doing so, that you have already surpassed the English language skills of a large percentage of native speakers! As the reply above pointed out, learning is always going to be an ongoing process with so many nuances, anomalies and an ever evolving vocabulary so I think you’re doing just fine! :)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I jump at anything on the workings of the mind since i’m 82 and will publish a memoir later this year. The only languages I now learn are computer workings and a bit of social media. But I enjoyed a visit to Latvia in 1997 when my son completed 4 years of study and work in Russia. We visited his Latvian friend who had spent 2 summers in the US as a camp counselor. hIs English was and still is impressive compared to the language skills of Americans.
    Many have Alzheimers at my age. i’ve read that it is less frequent and milder in those who know another language. One’s faculties may be retained in the second language.
    Thanks for the like re my Dad’s expat training for China.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes, the workings of the mind is an interesting topic and will always excite me. Therefore whenever I face a struggle with English (or any other language) I try to look at it from the perspective of mind, and how the language influences our thinking and vice versa. And yes, I read that about Alzheimers and other mental conditions – knowing another language is a good investment!


  4. I am having the same thoughts and problems. I’ve been learning the language ever sicnce I remember and even though sometimes I am being accused of being a native speaker (however my accent is a mixture of many), I have those days when I simply don’t feel like I have mastered the language at all. It also depends a lot on who I am speaking with, if it’s a native speaker – my level of English is completely different then when I speak to someone who has it as a second language or so – and after all those years I do not understand this process of adjusting my level of language based on the person I talk to. I would swear that this should not a a problem anymore but it still is apparently.
    But I mean, as long as we are able to express our thoughts and put ourselves out there in this beautiful language and are actually confident about it, we have gone a long way. Language is an ever changing living organism and the learning never ends, even native speakers have struggles :)

    Btw. keep up the spirit!, I enoy your writing since I am an expat myself, having a lot to relate to. It’s fun to see that we are all having similar battles in our lives.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot for your comment! Yes, you can never stop learning a language… and I guess that’s what I love about learning languages ;) Best of luck to you, fellow expat!


  5. Languages are fascinating and while I am struggling to learn Chinese these days I find it helps immensely for communication with my colleagues in English even. I did not realize there were studies to support the idea that language is a framework for how we understand the world around us, but the more Chinese I learn the more I understand how and why I sometimes think so much differently than my colleagues. Fascinating stuff!

    Side note on American/British English…some of our colleagues here are British (I’m American) and even we get stuck sometimes in a conversation not quite understanding what the other person meant. It’s cultural as much as anything!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, kudos to you – Chinese is a hard nut to crack! And I bet it’s even harder because of the massive cultural heritage… As you pointed out – it’s cultural, so I bet it’s not easy for you. Best of luck though! :) And thanks for sharing your experience!


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