Expatations: What We Talk About When We Talk About Language

Language, dear expat, takes time. Be patient with yourself when it seems no one else can be.

What’s a person with an accent called? Brave.” – Amy Chua

Native speaker: “Do you speak Italian?”
Me: “Not enough to hold a conversation, yet….”
Native speaker: “Well, you’re in Italy now, and you must speak Italian!”

If you’ve ever had THAT familiar conversation exchange, you may have felt shamed, like a child burning with frustration. Those words infuriate me on several levels and we expats, for all our courage and vision to build a new life in another country, are often reduced to this singularity. All our daily triumphs, defeats, grief and joy are tallied up by a stranger like an indifferent accountant and deduces after about a year, we should be fluent in their language, never taking into account that we might be older and learning doesn’t happen as quickly or easily as it did in our twenties, or that we’re experiencing culture shock, or preoccupied with work, or trying to create meaningful relationships, or finding a partner, and the list goes on.

Language is about being connected to people and a place, so sometimes, at least for me as a writer, it tethers me. When I can share my thoughts and feelings in English, I am thrilled and satisfied, because it means I am rooting myself in the Brescian community. That I matter. It’s also a way into the local ingroup. I haven’t made it there yet, in Italian, but I have in English with many wonderful bilingual Italians and that’s been so gratifying. This year, I’ve completed my A1 Level certificate in Italian, so, as many things in my life, it’s a work in progress and I’m not going to beat myself up every time someone questions my fluency. Eventually it will happen, even though I only speak advanced baby talk for now.

Perhaps this will fortify you: I’ve read somewhere that our mother tongue took about seven years to perfect. Beginning from the womb to the age of seven, we are fully immersed in one (or two!) language(s), continuously, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That’s how long it takes to become a native speaker. When the Greeks were fighting the Peloponnesian Wars, they could not understand the enemy because it sounded like “bar-bar-bar” and so, if you did not speak Greek, you were a Barbarian because you do not speak my language. You are not one of us. Language, dear expat, takes time. Be patient with yourself when it seems no one else can be.

Perhaps it was true for the Greeks, but on the surface it’s also a kind of segregation from the “Other.” But I’d like to think that we can look more profoundly into our shared humanity, with all its perfection and spectacular imperfections, into our shared needs: air, food, shelter, and emotional safety (that, and a good Netflix film). So yes, I miss the subtleties and nuances in most conversations and I’m lucky if I catch about every third word, but I take back my power during those uncomfortable exchanges with gentleness, humor, and respect—as an expat immigrant who crossed an ocean to get here to discover another life, another me—from powerless child to bold woman and remind them, piano, piano: Learning a language takes time.

Next column: We explore concerns about feeling overwhelmed and ways to make the foreign become more familiar. Share your questions with me at info@italicsmag.com.

Read the past Expatations columns here.