“Tongue tied”: When you think you’re fluent in a foreign language and 7 setbacks that show you’re not quite there yet…

As a Flemish-speaking Belgian; who lived half her life speaking English in Australia; and subsequently married a Frenchman and moved to Paris; it’s safe to say that my linguistic skills range from being a fluent smooth talker to stumbling around like a 4 year old (sometimes even changing levels within the same conversation).

When I first met my husband, my high-school French had to suffice, while I took on extra language courses in my quest to become a bona fide ‘française’ (or at the least, sound like one….) Being a native Flemish speaker as well (which is essentially just Dutch, but with a cooler accent, teehee 😉  I honestly thought I was doing a good job.  However, often I’m met with a few setbacks which take me down a peg and remind me that, no matter how fluent I might become, there will always be these hick-ups. This, in turn, damages my confidence at times and makes me feel like I’ll always be the eternal ‘outsider’.

The following setbacks do not necessarily block the communication, but tend to derail the messages I’m trying to get across. These obstacles are not only limited to my time in France but are based on various experiences my family and I have had over the years, all over the world.

1. Vocal cultural contrast 

I don’t know if this is specific to English-speakers, or if I’m just a talker, but I always tend to add a little backstory or example to ‘further explain’ my messages. Even writing this now, I know I’m not making a lot of sense.. so let me add a backstory to clear it up 🙂  For example, when needing to change an appointment; the French simply call… change the date….say goodbye (they are direct, but still have manners).. and hang up. Me, on the other hand, I feel the need to explain why I am changing the appointment. Doing this in my native language, takes a matter of two seconds: “Hi, I need to change the appointment, I have to pick up my child from school earlier than I thought“. However, throw in a second or third language, and that simple explanation turns into a mumble of excuses! “Hi… I need to change my appointment.. the family… my kid is at school… but they can’t be for long.. I have to pick them up..*fumbles with phone’s translation app* ..*groan*”.  Frankly, no one has time for that; and some lose patience;  which gets you even more tongue tied when you hear someone’s annoyed sighing on the other end. Keep it simple… if you stay simple, chances are you’ll be understood better.

2. The ‘direct translation’ catch 

This one has gotten me on numerous occasions… I know that the basic message is usually received when we translate directly from our native language.. however certain misuses of words can often lead to either comical or awkward situations. I once told my mother-in-law I was excited to see my husband again after 3 months… sounds innocent enough right.. but the word ‘excité‘ in French is more commonly used when someone is excited in the .. let’s say.. more ‘romantic’ sense (yes, I mean horny).  I also once told them I lost my mind which, using direct translation, lead them to believe that I had misplaced my brains. My Belgian friends have had a chuckle or two where I’ve thrown in some expressions directly translated from English. My girlfriend was very confused when I randomly started blabbing about pastries when her partner ‘wanted to have it all‘.. in Belgium, it seems, people don’t “have their cake and eat it too“.

3. You’re not funny in another language

There’s nothing worse than trying to fit in with a joke and being the only one left laughing to an awkward silence or the sound of crickets chirping. Unless the joke is a primary school leveled wisecrack, I’d stay away from using witty humor in another language until you’ve mastered it. Like the above two points, a lot of the underlying wit is often misinterpreted or the message is lost in translation. A direct translation can lead to an entirely different joke and don’t forget the cultural differences in what we perceive as ‘funny’. What may be seen as dirty in one language, can be construed as completely vulgar in another. Also, some things are just funnier in one language and not the other (looking at a play of words, colloquial meanings etc) …. well at least you cracked yourself up right?

4. Some people just switch off as soon as they hear an accent

It’s unfortunately true that some people switch off and stop listening as soon as they hear an accent. This does not mean they are completely ignoring you, nor that they are discriminating (calm down), but they only end up hearing what they want to hear and they no longer put in the effort. For me, this happens most frequently when on the phone. At least in person you could charm them with a smile or sad ‘please-I’m-not-fluent-but-I’m-trying’ puppy eyes. In certain cultures, it is also common that someone refuses to tell you they don’t understand you…. a Chinese person will rather send you clear across town before admitting he did not understand your request for directions (then again, by being sent all over the city is how I got to explore the majority of Hong Kong.. brownie points).

5. An attempt to master the accent ends up in a drunken slur

Sometimes we try to master an accent in order to sound more fluent, however we focus less on the grammar and start making mistakes. We often pick up on these mistakes straight away, but instead of changing our accents mid sentence (because we don’t want to sound like an idiot), we end up slurring or mumbling our way out of it. I think it’s better to speak the language correctly, even if our accents are lousy, rather than sound like a fluent, but moronic, native.

As a side note, I would like to include the actual slurring incidents (usually  as a result of one too many beers) where we think we’re a lot more fluent than what we are (we also think we’re better dancers, philosophers and peacekeepers).

6. The nonexistence of certain words

Anyone who speaks more than one language is familiar with the scenario where you know the perfect word or expression to describe your situation, just not in the language you need at the time. A direct translation of such a saying only results in confusing the person even more. Just like having ‘chickenskin’ (‘kippenvel’ in Dutch) is not the right way to describe goosebumps, neither is ‘becoming a goat’ (devenir chêvre’ in French ) to tell people you’re being driven mad by all the language jumbles. We,multilingual speakers, would kick ass at scrabble if we could just mix and match the languages we know.

7. Language fusion 

Any multilingual family can relate with the vast mixing pot of languages we deal with on a daily basis. Because we all speak the different languages together, often our sentences can start in one language and finish in the other (heck, let’s add a third one in the middle, just for shits and giggles – another expression badly translated by the way). We do it with such speed and accuracy that we don’t even notice the difference.

Fast forward to when you’re speaking with someone who is not part of that same family and you’ve got yourself a very confused listener. Just like our 3 year old, who is currently speaking in three languages… often in the same sentence (seriously, the teachers at her kindergarten have no idea what she’s talking about), I’m often throwing in a word in English hoping no one will notice and think I’m super fluent and oh so funny hahahaaa.. Nevertheless, unlike my 3 year old who will grow out of it soon and master her linguistics, I’ll need some more practice…..

The idea that the world of each language is divided into two groups: “fluent” and “non-fluent” is not realistic . Language is a living thing; it always happens within a certain context and every scenario is different for everyone. Fluency is not purely linguistic but involves non-verbal communication as well . Written fluency won’t help you to understand the meaning of a nod or a gesture. I think that’s why children (well.. children and drunk people) can communicate so well… they focus on what the person is trying to relay rather than how they are saying it.

I know, with time, I’ll hopefully master the French language and walk around like I own the place, but in the meantime I’ll just row my boat on the ‘fluent enough’ plateau and go from there..

I hope some of you could relate, and you’re welcome to share your funny ‘lost in translation’ moments in the comments below for us to have a shared chuckle..

In the meantime I bid you ‘adieu’ with ‘nog een prettige dag verder’ or ‘une bonne journée’



“Soccer-moms; Hookers and Wall-Flowers, Oh My!!”: Expat Wife Stereotypes

I’ve been an expat most of my life: as the child, as the working partner, as the spouse and now as the new house mommy. One thing that seemed consistent, no matter where we lived, was the dishing out and immediate labeling of various stereotypes. A trade, so ingrained, we are all guilty of doing it more often than we’d like to admit!

Some people do fit the profile dead on, stereotypes after all are based on some truths, but unfortunately many people tend to be ‘mislabeled’ and pushed aside because of someone else’ perceived idea of their story.

I’m blessed to have a bit of a mixing-pot of friends which has led to some fun conversations about what people have said behind our backs (or in some cases straight to our faces). I’d like to share some of the stereotypes that get slapped on some of us ‘expat wives’ here in Hong Kong because of our appearance/situation and perhaps a different truth behind each one.

1.Expat Soccer Mom

The stereotype: People see her pushing her stroller, having a coffee with friends, and browsing the book store. The stereotype pretty much labels her as someone who stays at home, has a frequent flyer card at Starbucks, bosses around local wait staff and has nothing better to do but meet up with friends to complain about her life to kill time until the husbands come home.

A different truth perhaps: This ‘soccer mom’ works from home, wears sneakers because her kid is just too darn fast these days, doesn’t own a single high end piece of clothing, is one big doormat who wouldn’t dream to yell at a server for fear they’ll spit in her food and spends time having a coffee with friends because it’s the only social interaction she’ll get that day because she can’t currently work outside due to a lack of available daycare. She loves her life and knows darn well how blessed she is, but doesn’t mind the occasional vent on a bad day.

2. Exotic Hooker/Cleaner-Turned-Expat-Wife

The stereotype: People see her with her expat husband and immediately think she must have met him out in the bars where she worked as an exotic dancer/cleaner and has now married him for his money just to escape the poverty hit life she probably had before. She speaks in her own language to friends and will hit on your husband the first chance she gets.

A different truth perhaps: They met whilst he was working overseas as they were colleagues at the same firm. She admired his passion for life and decided to follow his career which resulted in her staying at home to raise their children. She speaks her own language with her friends, just like the rest of the expats do when feeling a bit homesick, and although she is darn exotic and sexy, she has better things to do than to spend her time hitting on your fat, balding husband.

3. The Mousy Wall Flower

The stereotype: When she is in a larger group she won’t say much as she prepares the snacks she made for the social gathering and takes care of everyone around her. People might view her as a simple wall flower with not much to say and will avoid striking up a conversation for fear they’ll be stuck talking about pottery classes or having to explain to her where any countries are.

A different truth perhaps: This little ‘wall flower’ will kick your ass if you cross her or anyone she loves. She doesn’t talk much in a big group as she quite enjoys watching people and being in the moment rather than taking to the stage. She loves talking about politics, religion and has never taken a pottery class in her life. She probably knows more about certain topics than you do but doesn’t feel the need to prove that to anyone.

3. The Angry Asian Mom

The stereotype: She lets her children run around and bug people as she quietly sips a cup of green tea without a care in the world. She has her two-year old signed up for calculus, piano lessons, advanced French and floor gymnastics. She is ruthless, pushy and competitive and will see all non-Asian moms as hippies who let their kids run wild.

A different truth perhaps: This ‘Asian mom’ studied in London, and although she has taken up some of the traditional ways of raising her child, she enjoys putting her own spin on things. She sips that cup of tea to give herself five minutes alone to relax and forces herself not intervene when the man who slammed the door in her face a mere five minutes ago gets annoyed that her child is running past his table because she is being ‘inconsiderate’. She would like her child to have the best opportunities in life and may have signed him up for a swimming class, but rest assured he is in bed on time and doesn’t get forced to play the piano as she slaps his hands with a ruler. She needs to be pushy sometimes as she lives in a culture where competition is high in the educational system, but she has a heart of gold.

4. The Faux-local

The stereotype: She has the know on all local restaurants, shops and customs and speaks the language even when it’s not needed. She has completely immersed herself into this new culture and is condescending towards anyone who doesn’t know what the term ‘pu tong hua’ means. She is a know-it-all who will give you her two cents whether you have asked for it or not

A different truth perhaps: This expat enjoys the adventures of a new culture and gets a kick out of learning a new local phrase for the week. Her intentions of sharing her local knowledge merely come from a place to give some of the lovely experiences she has had to others. She doesn’t care less if someone doesn’t have the same enthusiasm over a game of Mahjong and just wants to soak up every second of her life overseas before returning back home.

5. The Trophy-Wife

The stereotype: She always looks well-groomed, carries around her Gucci purse as she spends her time at the salon and spa. She is often seen on the arm of her rich husband and is gawked at my all men who picture her in her Guess bikini as she stupidly sips cocktails with them on the beach.

A different truth perhaps: She likes to take pride in how she looks as it boosts her confidence; and she doesn’t mind getting up 40 minutes earlier to make the effort to do so. Her fancy bag is probably a knock off she found at the markets, but she likes the style and look of it. There are only so many manicures a person can have before your nails get filed off, so you probably just happened to have catch her on her monthly spa visit. She feels immensely proud to be at the arm of her successful husband as he worked his way up from the ground whilst she supported him fully from the sidelines. She can’t help it that other men gawk at her, but that won’t stop her from looking good as she does this for herself. She is beautiful from the inside as well as out and makes a great friend to anyone who can get passed their own low self esteem to talk to her.

The idea of this post is to exaggerate some of the common stereotypes I have witnessed for the sake of taking it all with a grain of salt and humor, but mainly for the rest of us to take a second a look at someone before we pass judgement (or at least to have the decency to keep some of our opinions to ourselves).

Now if you’ll excuse me I have a group of friends and Venti-Chai-Latte-on-Skim waiting for me 😉