Exploring life's passions

Languages: does it matter that you are not fluent?

wpid-20150727_221645.jpgLying in a hammock on the terrace of our current home in Cabo Verde, thinking about my languages skills can hardly be considered a hardship. The fact that we are here, in Praia, in the first place, has to do with the fact that my Portuguese is sufficiently good to work here.

However, even though I am really happy that I learned to speak and read the language pretty well, and that this is a very useful skill while living and working worldwide, I am also confronted with the fact that I would benefit very much from picking up my study books again and to improve my Portuguese. And the same would apply for Spanish.

So I am lying here wondering whether it is worth the effort. Especially knowing how much effort it has taken me to come this far. Or whether I have to accept the fact that my language skills are not perfect, and that it will take me a very long and intensive time of studying to master Spanish and Portuguese sufficiently well to be able to understand all the different accents and be fluent.

Language booksLast Thursday night I went out with some of my new colleagues in Cabo Verde. They are all Spanish and Portuguese speakers. It was then that I realized that even though I speak both Portuguese and Spanish, I was sometimes completely lost with what they were trying to tell me and could only follow half their stories. And even though the Spanish would speak Spanish and the Portuguese would stick with their own language, it did not to seem to bother anybody else but me.

An interesting observation I thought, when I consider that English people often find it more difficult to understand a Scotsman or someone from Wales or Ireland than me, a non-native English speaker. But maybe that has nothing to do with language skills, and much more to do with the relationships between the countries.

Anyway, every so often my colleagues would make the effort to speak English, repeat their question or patiently listen to my story. But understandably, most of the time they would rattle on and tell jokes about each other’s country and habits, and most of that did not make any sense to me.

I’m not complaining, it was a lovely evening, with an excellent fish dinner at the seaside. But there were moments when I felt lonely in the company of this big group. Even when I understood a story, often it would take me too much time and effort to comment on it or contribute to the conversation.

Luckily enough I don’t have this problem when talking about work. Talking shop seems so much easier. You quickly get used to the jargon, and as long a discussion is to the point, it is all quite straightforward. It is especially these social settings I find difficult.

When thinking a bit deeper about the matter, I realise that I don’t have this problem when surrounded by others who are also speaking a language other than their mother tongue. For example, when I’m surrounded by northern Europeans from other countries and we’re all speaking English, Globish, Portuguese or Spanish. I am also happy to realise that I had fewer communication problems when I was speaking Spanish in Bolivia and Argentina or when speaking Portuguese with the Cape Verdeans.

what B people say and what they mean

What British people say. And what they really mean.

So maybe it is not that bad after all, and I just have to accept the fact that when surrounded by native speakers in social setting, I will most likely always face difficulties to fully understand their conversation. Probably also because I miss out on the national and cultural jokes and inside information, as I do when I am in Scotland with Jim’s family and friends.

For me, the challenge to bridge the gap between speaking a language pretty well and being a native speaker is often too difficult. I know many friends of mine who have lived in a foreign country for many years and speak their adopted language very well still struggle with the idioms and intricacies that native speakers use.

So maybe I don’t have to aim for perfection, but continue to learn and enjoy the fact that I can have all these conversations with so many people around in all these different languages. And accept that in some circumstances I will not be able to follow what is being said, but instead enjoy the interaction I see without necessarily allowing that feeling of loneliness.

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2 Responses »

  1. A lot of recognition in your story. You touched a “gevoelige snaar” when jou told about the feelings in a group of native speakers, especially the lack of knowledge about jokes and related issues. My wife Mattie often feels lonely when visiting a birthday or a happening like that in Friesland. My mother tongue is Frisian, so for me there is no problem. I recognize the feeling when attending for example a family happening in Germany or Bolivia. The jokes and the local speak is mostly to difficult. Look for an elder person, or the taxi-driver and you can communicate. Still the variety of languages is a rich thing. I love it and can not understand the problems in Belgium. The feeling you describe is the same I undergo when trying to speak on telephone or when chatting with our family in Bolivia.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Alle for you comment and your recognition. Lucky there are enough opportunities, like you mention, a conversation with a taxi driver or older people, that makes learning and the use of our limited language skills worth it.


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