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How Others See Your Language Learning Posted by on Feb 13, 2017 in Uncategorized

You language learning will be received differently around the world by different people. How is it for you?

Itchy Feet: Speaking Terms, Part 2

As much as I like to paint cultures and people with broad strokes in my comic Itchy Feet, for satirical purposes of course – the fact is that people are people, and people are different. Everyone’s going to react differently to you learning a language. It depends who you are, who they are, and what language you’re learning.

As an American growing up in the Southwest, knowing a second language (that wasn’t Spanish) was wild and unique. Even though my parents are both trilingual and multicultural, you don’t think much about that as a kid. You think about what your friends are like. And while some of my friends of Hispanic heritage could indeed speak Spanish, not all of them did, and even if they could, it wasn’t cool. It was just normal. But if you could speak Russian or Japanese or Hebrew? Now that was interesting. I remember being fascinated by my best friend growing up, whose mother was Israeli and spoke Hebrew with him. Lucky guy, I thought. He’s going to grow up to be all interesting. Not like me, with my boring old German dad and Irish mom. Snore!

So when you do learn a foreign language as an adult American, people find it incredible. “I could NEVER do that,” they say, as if they’ve put in the hours you have. English is easy enough to use around the world, so why bother climbing such a difficult mountain?

But now as I’ve left the USA and joined the expat community abroad, I’ve found that it’s almost taboo not to speak more than one language. You’re expected to speak at least two. Otherwise there’s this implication that you’re just barging into foreign countries, getting by on your English and expecting others to do the same. And it’s not always English – there’s a large Italian community here in Berlin, for example, and I know several Italians who don’t speak any German OR English! Somehow, it feels like there’s something irresponsible about that – almost brutish. And especially here in Europe, if you meet someone who speaks five languages, you just nod. Of course they do.

And various cultures will have various broad ways of receiving the information that you are learning their language. In countries where the language is popular around the world, like China – it’s assumed. In countries where the language is less international, like Thailand – it’s celebrated. And in some countries, like Japan, there’s nothing you can do to get the locals to treat you like a local, too, no matter how “fluent” you get. Fluency is cultural as much as linguistic.

What about you? How have people reacted to your language learning endeavors?


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About the Author:Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Donna Johnson:

    I have found most Russians very pleased at my efforts to speak their language, and complimentary of my lack of accent, even tho I’m lost after a few pat exchanges. At the same time, I have frequently been corrected on my grammar, and many people went to lengths to explain my mistakes, usually very supportively.

    • Eugene:

      @Donna Johnson There are still a ex-USSR complexes about being Russian, on one hand feeling that all is bad, on other hand being taught that there were great things in the past related to Russia/Russian culture. I was surprized to find out that some things did really influence Western culture — as I understood from Maugham’s notes Chekhov was the thing for some years for English readers.

      That’s why seeing that some Westerner (or “Easterner”, e.g. Japanese) learns your native language is extremely pleasing. In the same time, all ex-USSR inhabitans speaking Russian considered to be OK, to the point of some rudeness towards them. People are strange creatures.

  2. Cheryl:

    Donna, yes, Russians don’t hesitate to correct your mistakes. They aren’t mean about it, as you say.
    Spanish speakers, otoh, almost never do, even if you beg them to; they will heap praise on you no matter how tough your attempts to speak.

  3. Helen:

    I’m English, living in France, so 2 fluent languages.I don’t like to suppose everyone can speak English and if I travel I like to be able to be at least a little familiar with the local language. So far I’ve always had a positive reaction to my taking an interest in languages to communicate, but the danger is that people may be tempted to rattle on and lose me somewhere in mid-sentence… My latest venture was in Iceland when I was able to manage in shops, greetings etc and got very big smiles at my efforts. I don’t mind if it’s only making people laugh a little, at least I try!

  4. Eugene:

    I am surprized that someone understands what I am saying in English. I never thought I’d get to that level when I was growing up. Knowing Russian and Ukrainian is standard whatever was your native language, though, and Tatars I knew ended up knowing Tatar and Russian as native, Ukrainian as second, English as third (they were people with higher education).

    In Russia, I heard, outside big cities it is similar way to what you described: people just speak Russian, there is English teacher in school who teaches almost nothing, and knowing your local language (one of many Russia has) usually is not appreciated, as it is attached to villagers and farming for all your life. Cities speak Russian and are trying to imitate English.

  5. tunis:

    arabic is the easiest language that I have ever learned. I am Indonesian and speak english and german 🙂

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