It’s common to think that when people move to a foreign country, they should also learn the local language.
Otherwise it can be taken as disrespectful. For expats or immigrants, whichever term you identify with, it can also decrease our chances of making friends and finding a job.
Clearly, learning the local language simply makes sense.
Or does it? What is it that languages are supposed to do for us?
Is it to show respect for the local country? Or is it a tool to further our personal goals?
This is the first in a series of posts on learning/not learning a local language.
In this first post I want to discuss the meanings and values that can be attached to languages, and how someone speaking/not speaking the local language can be taken as representative of those (clashing) values.
Because any time we are asked to explain ‘why is it that you don’t speak [enter name of local language]?’ what we’re really being asked about is our values related to languages.
To make this less abstract, let me tell you about the language values that I grew up with (but didn’t necessarily adopt for the rest of my life).
My first language is spoken by only 1.1 million people
And it’s called Estonian.
With that in mind, you can perhaps imagine how speaking such a “minor” language can teach parents to become extremely strategic about the choice of languages they want their kids to learn.
In my case, it was English, German, Russian, and I took French on the side. I was also regularly exposed to Finnish.
I was raised to think of languages from a strategic point of view. That I should learn certain “major” languages because they will help me in the future.
This perspective has taught me to not be judgmental when people have rationally thought out reasons for why they choose to learn some local languages but not others.
Diplomats are a great example of this mindset. Diplomats need to learn local languages for them to move up in their careers. However, if there’s ever a choice between learning a minor or major language, it’s not uncommon that some would rather learn the major language because it may be more useful later in their careers.
Having my first language be a minor language has taught me to never underestimate the power of languages and what they can do for building careers and establishing relations.
But also what they can do to keep certain doors firmly closed…
Because I was also raised in a climate of incredible protectionism and defensiveness towards those who seemingly refused to learn the Estonian language.
‘If you live in this country, you should speak the local language‘
I would be a billionaire by now if I got a small amount of money every time I heard someone say out loud:
‘Oh those Russians! Some have lived in Estonia for 30 years, but they still don’t speak a word of Estonian.’
Behind those words are feelings of pain and a sense of disrespect. And a long history of occupation by Russia as well (which you can read about here).
But I have heard this same exclamation in many other countries as well. Sometimes it was me who was on the receiving end of this scorn.
Languages can have emotional value, and so they can be used as markers of identity. Something that any minor/minority language speaker can attest to.
Protectionism and a certain measure of defensiveness arise when it’s a language not spoken by many people (such as Estonian).
Because the speakers of this language have been historically denied the right to speak it (just pick any one of the former colonized countries around the world).
Because the government doesn’t recognize it as a legitimate language (Swiss German dialects are an interesting case study).
Or because they see non-speakers or speakers of other languages as a threat to the world as they know it.
The scenarios are many, and they are just as valid as a strategic perspective on languages.
They are valid because these views or feelings about their language are tied to personal values which are very hard to argue with or against.
Understanding the local culture also means understanding the values attached to the local language(s)
It is important to realize that part of understanding the local culture, even if you don’t stay for life, is also learning about the values that people attach to the local language(s) or dialects.
And so when you don’t learn the local language, you may be seen as unsupportive of the values attached to the local language (or dialect) in question. That is unless you run into someone who also sees learning languages as a matter of strategic thinking.
For instance, I have been living in Denmark for the past 9 years. While there are days when I speak a lot of Danish, there are still many more days when my life moves along in English (which is a story for another time altogether).
On those days I often find myself having to explain why I’m not speaking Danish. Whenever I get asked that question by locals, I know that it might be just a simple case of curiosity. But it can equally be a veiled expression of clashing values and I need to dread carefully.
Other times people tell me upfront how they would never expect me to speak Danish with them because it’s a language spoken by so few people, so why bother. Typically, these are people who have lived abroad themselves and assume that I’d be moving on at some point.
In both cases, people are reacting to my speaking/not speaking Danish based on their own ideas about language. And in both cases their reactions have nothing to do with my actual reasoning.
Even if you don’t choose to learn the local way of speaking, it’s still wise to figure out what are the values attached to the local languge(s).
This will help you to understand why some people may react negatively towards you and how you can smooth some ruffled feathers.
5 things to learn about what the local language means for local people
I encourage you to start making observations about your language choices and how people react to you as a result.
The following questions are useful to keep in mind so you can learn more about what the local language means for the place where you live.
And more importantly, what your choice to learn/not learn the local language means for you and the people around you
1.How do people react when you are heard speaking/not speaking the local language?
2.Are you treated differently when you speak one or another language?
Once you’ve made note of your own experiences, turn your observations towards the local people:
3. Do people typically prefer to speak in one language/dialect over another? Can you find out why?
4. What sort of evaluations do local people make against other locals who they see as not speaking ‘the right way’? What does that tell you about attitudes towards different ways of speaking where you live?
Once you’ve made these observations, it’s time to dig into the past:
5. What is the language history where you live? Is there a history of colonization, occupation or marginalization where some languages have been banned or forbidden? Perhaps there is a history of multilingualism? Or has this multilingualism appeared just recently with the influx of new people moving to the country?
Asking all of these questions will help you better understand what the local language(s) means for local people and how your choice to speak/not speak the local language fits into the greater scheme of things.
Even if you don’t choose to learn the local language, you will learn what the values attached to local language(s) in the place where you live, and what your choice means for your life in that place.
In Part II of this series we’ll talk about how to think strategically about languages as well as how to deal with other people’s reactions to your choices. In Part III we discuss learning/not learning the local language if you know you’re in the country for a limited period and how to get by anyway without pissing everyone off.
What sort of encounters with clashing values around language have you experienced where you live? Share your experience in the comments.
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Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.