Culture Shock; Language Barrier

HELLO in eight different languages

Growing up, my parents have always encouraged me and my brothers to speak different languages. We would go with our caravan {yes – I know, typically Dutch} on holiday in Europe and wherever we would be my parents let us go and order bread at the bakery or food in the restaurant. We were always supposed to be ordering it in the language of the country we were in, off course after my dad would have told us what it was in that specific language.

02. HiSo as a little girl I would cross the camping site, walk to the bakery and order “5 croissant et 1 baguette, s’il vous plaît”. Often I hated doing it, but most of the time the people at the bakery were so impressed by this little girl that spoke their language, that by the time I got back to our caravan I had forgotten all about it {until the next morning…}.

Besides the encouragements from my parents, we were taught loads of languages at school. This as Holland is a small country and to make sure we are able to do business with other countries, we had to learn their language (because who will be able to speak Dutch to do business?!).
By the time I went to high school, I could already speak conversational English, which is one of the mandatory languages we have at school. Besides that we start the first year with German and French, and after two years you can drop one of the languages. I was not great in writing and the grammar part of the languages, but I was always the person who was not afraid to talk, so most of the classes I bluffed my way out. By the age of 14 I spoke 4 languages; Dutch, English, and basic German and French.

Everywhere I go, I realise that Holland is famous for speaking so many languages. The other day I saw this map of Europe, showing the average number of languages spoken by the European population.

Avergae number of languages spoken by the European Population

Holland scored the second highest score with an average of 3.2 languages spoken. We only got beaten by Luxembourg, which is not so strange as its a small country as well and they have 3 official languages in the country (Luxembourgish, French and German).

With this in mind,  I promised myself when I moved overseas that I would always learn the language of the country where I lived. In Singapore this was easy, as I the main language is English. But in my time there I picked up some words of Malay and Chinese as many of the people I worked with spoke these languages.
Then we moved to Vietnam; the first couple of months we lived there, I did not have a job yet so I thought learning the language would be a great way to keep myself busy and learn new people. I studied the language for about 2 months, 3 days a week. In Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) itself nobody was able to understand a word I was saying in that time… Not so strange as this is a language with 6 tones, meaning that each word could mean 6 different things! The harder I tried, the lesser they would get what I was saying.

04. Thank youHowever, after living in HCMC for almost 4 years, taxi drivers were able to understand me, I could give proper directions and could bargain on the market for better rates. I could also make small talk and could pick up some words in conversations {which was basically good for acting that I was understanding what they were saying around me}, and I was able to write basic sentences {thank god the Vietnamese adopted the Latin alphabet!}. By the time we left I was pretty proud of what I had accomplished in learning a language I never thought I would be able to speak. And what I loved most was that due to the fact that I was able to speak some Vietnamese, this made me closer to the local people. They let me in to their world, and tried to teach me more words and more things about themselves and their country.

That brings me to today. We’ve been living in Phuket for over a year now, and I am very embarrassed to say that the only words I can say are ‘Sawasdee-Kah’ {which means good morning/evening} and ‘Krab-Kun-Kah’ {which means thank you}.
Thai – like Vietnamese – is a tonal language with 5 different tones. This means that I have to go back to the basics again and learn each and every word with 5 different tones. Now to big disadvantage is that the Thai don’t make use of the Latin alphabet, so I would need to learn how to write as well to understand what I am supposed to be saying.
You hear?! I’m making excuses for myself not to learn this ‘new’ language… I know I should start learning the language, at least the basics, so I can make short conversations with people on the street and in the hotel. I know this will break down barriers and will give me a better understanding of the Thai culture. I am just so damn lazy to start this all over again… It’s exhausting to do really! It was so nice to learn the Vietnamese language though, as I was able to talk to almost everyone in the company I worked with. I got such a better sense of the Vietnamese culture and people opened up to me, just because I was able to say “Hi, how are you?”

05. LanguagesLanguage barriers can make it very difficult to life somewhere. I thought I would be able to get around anywhere in the world, as I spoke a couple of languages, and the places I would go to where I did not speak the language I would be able to get my message across by talking with my hands and feet {the Dutch way of saying sign language}. However I found out that signs are different in other countries, and you can make a complete ass of yourself without knowing it… So the best way to break down the language barrier is to learn the language itself…

That being said, I think I will start my Thai language course on Monday. Or maybe the week after… What do you think? 

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