day 3: start talking

I can still remember some of the many Zulu phrases I learnt the year I lived in South Africa. I even semi-mastered the clicks they use in some words. A few years later, I was in a country with technically the same language as my own, but there was still a lot of new words to pick up – eggplant instead of aubergine, zucchini instead of courgette, pants instead of trousers. And the day someone told me to take the trolley from the station back to the university, I was completely stumped.

I am a strong advocate for learning the language of the place you are living in (or the family you’re marrying into!). Language is so central to our identity, our culture, the way we express our values and beliefs. If you are always speaking to locals in their second (or third, fourth…) language  you’re going to miss out on a big part of the expat experience.

It’s easier said than done though, and I have so much sympathy for people who struggle with it. We’ve been pushing through French lessons since arriving here in Luxembourg, and some days we leave with our heads spinning. But then I meet a French friend for coffee and she encourages me through a conversation in halting stilted French in all the wrong tenses. And it feels so so good. And the smile on her face to hear me making this much effort to speak her language? It makes it all worthwhile.

So here’s my challenge today, to ditch the excuses and make learning the language a top priority.

But I’m only going to be here for six months/one year/three years so what’s the point? The point is that even a few basic phrases can open doors to friendships, and to helpful staff instead of frustrated staff. A simple moein here in Luxembourg shows I’m making an effort, that I am interested in the local culture and people.

But surely everyone speaks English by now, so what’s the point? The point is to stop be an arrogant ass. (gasp!) Not everyone speaks English. And frankly, the fact that Luxembourgers speak English as their fourth language (I know!) should humble me enough to at least learn one of their first three.

But, hello, they have three national languages here. Even if I learn one, I’ll still not be able to communicate with everyone, so what’s the point? The point is to start somewhere. If we always make excuses for not beginning something that seems hard, we’ll never learn, never grow, and we’ll miss out on so much of life.

But I’ve never been good at languages. I just can’t learn. So what’s the point trying? The point is that everyone can learn something. You may never be fluent. You may always have a truly horrible accent. But you’ll be able to ask someone how they are, order a drink for a new friend, thank someone for their help.

Because the point here is not fluency, it’s connection. Language has the power to connect or to divide. And surely it’s always better to be attempting the former…


This post is part of my 31 days to embrace expat life. I’m writing every day through October on this topic. Want to read more about my experience learning other languages? Start here…

Brave is daring to speak

Conquering Babel – learning Danish

On learning a language

Yes, the photo only has small relevance to the topic, but it’s my favourite storyline from the Love Actually film. It makes me smile. That’s reason enough!