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).