3 Surprising Challenges Of Speaking Foreign Languages

Yesterday, when I was trying to fall asleep I’ve heard my neighbors´ voices  on the street chatting about something in German. I tried to listen more carefully in order to understand what is the topic but could only grasp some separate words, not being able to figure out a meaningful context out of it.

This reminded me of how strange our brains are when it comes to language processing (though, our brains are weird overall not only “when it comes to”). I gave up on listening and fell asleep with a thought that I should write about this.

What I write further down, might seem obvious for people who speak several languages but in the end, these challenges are not so simple and straightforward. Another reason why I want to share it here is to remind myself as well as any others who might read this post, that it’s normal to be un-perfect in languages (and in anything else). Our brains are doing a big job to keep things smooth and nice but failures are part of the system. In reality, failures are only confirming the complexity of our brain.

Now, let’s go through the surprising challenges we face when speaking / learning / using a foreign language.

1. Language knowledge is not a constant

The biggest misconception about language is that linguistic skills are a given. You’ve earned an A2/B1/C1 certificate, so you are expected to conform to the achieved level.

Not only is that untrue in terms of the definition of each language level, e.g. you might understand the reading to the level of C1 but speak only to the level of B1. Then, overall, you might have something in between, like B2.

But what is surprising and so annoying is that your language abilities are constantly fluctuating depending on many factors.

I can recall dozens of situations happening within a short period of time when some times I was speaking French or German to someone, and that person was amazed how good my skills were and how barely noticeable my accent was vs. other times when upon the first couple of phrases the person switched to English, assuming that my knowledge in her language is so poor that English would be the easiest way to communicate.

This does not depend only on the kindness or strictness of the person.

It is an objective truth that sometimes I speak well; I can seamlessly find great words and constructions, easily pronounce words imitating the local accent. And other times, my speaking is just miserable, I forget simple words, “translate” things literally from my native language, and my accent is disastrous.

I’m sure you would recall feeling similar even when speaking your native language. Our eloquence here also fluctuates. But with the “acquired” language this effect is multiplied by X times. I guess X depends on your experience and with time it decreases, but it’s still there.

The factors interfering with our language proficiency are simple: they are either related to our physical state (tiredness vs recovery) or related to our emotions (upset, stressed, insecure vs inspired, confident, motivated).

Practice, time, and self-confidence should help to partially overcome it; but not less important is to be aware of these variables and accept it.

2. “Decipher the whispers”

The second trap that not many are aware of is a whisper. Or any other obstacles for hearing words clearly.

This is exactly the case I described at the beginning of the article when I couldn’t decipher what exactly my neighbors were chatting about.

The common misconception about language learning is that we learn 1) vocabulary and 2) grammatical structure.

With this, a whole universe of things our brains are processing when learning the language is being omitted. In fact, when we learn a language:

  • we’ve got to identify where one word ends and other begins;
  • we learn the cadence, the pitch;
  • we have to re-build neural network from scratch because things do work differently in the foreign language, especially if this language does not belong to your language family;
  • to pronounce words, our speech systems have to be re-wired, new muscles built.

All these things are very subtle and require much more brain plasticity than our adult brains have (alas!).

This is the reason why fully getting rid of the accent is so difficult.

Ok, but what’s wrong with whisper then? It looks like hearing a whisper in the other language is more challenging than in yours. It might have to do something with the different tonality that is used during whispering so that our brain has to interpret more than usual in order to get a clear picture.

The same happens when the voice is heard from afar, or when there are many people are speaking at the same time.

I guess that even if we hear only 50% of words in our native language, our brain still can build up the whole scene because we know well all the possible connections between words, its collocations, and context when it is used. So, we do a lot of interpretation and guessing without even noticing this – and generally, it works out fine.

We cannot do the same in the foreign language simply because we didn’t have the same amount of exposure to the language as with our mother tongue and could not build all those connections.

No surprise that what feels usual and normal with your maternal language, is tricky in others.

3. Multitasking in the foreign language

And this last point that I think is already self-explanatory. Multitasking in a foreign language is not a piece of cake.

The foreign language uses a lot of operative memory in your head and therefore requires more focus.

I am always listening to podcasts or watching (actually listening to) the videos when doing my daily chores – from taking a shower to arranging the apartment.

I noticed that listening to the podcasts in English or French (which are the languages I feel more comfortable with) do not bother me so I can relatively easily concentrate both on the content of the podcast and my other “physical” task. However, when I listen to a podcast in German or Spanish AND doing something else, my mind often goes into a daydreaming mode, where I miss parts of the discussion without even noticing it.

The same happens when I visit friends speaking my “less developed” languages:

As soon as I am distracted from the conversation I would not get almost anything in the background. I have to make a mental “effort” to be present and to understand everything.

To a certain degree, the same happens even to the Russian, which is my mother tongue but it’s remarkably easier to put the Russian language in the background tasks.

Fazit? (= “conclusion” in German)

Our brains are fascinating, and speaking or learning the foreign language is just another way to discover the beauty and immensity of it.

night sky with bright star

The picture of the sky full of stars taken from the village in Switzerland

Posted by m.migalina in Culture and Mentality, 0 comments

Stockholm, Sweden: first impressions

Sweden was a first Scandinavian country that I visit.

Going to the new place with a set of pre-determined expectations is not good, as it might hinder your exploration patterns and narrows your view. However, even knowing that, I did have my expectations, blurred pictures of how should Sweden look like and function.

What I saw generally fitted my pre-defined idea but also complemented and partly corrected it.

Stockholm metro station

I will not follow any chronology or make a story of my trip to Stockholm, instead I spit here out (in a more or less structured way) my observations about this country.

1. People

Exploring the appearance, faces, and clothing styles of people in Stockholm in a slow motion video

a. Clothes

The very first impression I had arriving in Stockholm was about people being stylish. It’s not that kind of definition of style you’ll find in Paris or Italy but functional, minimalistic and modest.

It makes a perfect sense to use rain jackets daily in Sweden, so Swedes created beautiful rain jackets instead of plastic crap we are used to think about when mentioning rain jackets. Also Swedes like to use under jackets, sort of Uniqlo style. These go under any coats and suits.

Man reads a book

I haven’t seen much diversity in color, as clothes are mostly dark or grayish, the fits are large, and the forms are simple and straight , as if people don’t like to stand out of the crowd but keep their clothes comfortable and again functional.

b. Appearance

Physically, both me and my husband found Swedish men and women attractive. A lot of Arian types of faces with light shaded skin and blonde hairs but also nice brunette types.

Surprising for me was that Swedes are not as tall as I expected. Probably even smaller than Germans, not to mention Dutch people.

c. Quiet and individualistic

When I go to Mexico, I feel like someone strongly increases the volume of sound. Everything is loud and mixed. In Sweden, the effect is contrary.

I think I’ve never been in a more quiet country. Ok, let alone the Swiss countryside but talking about the big city, actually the capital.

One day we were traveling and we came to a Burger King on the train station to eat. The silence in that Burger King at the train station was astounding. People were sitting quietly and eating their burgers without making any noise, even those ones who were not alone. Everyone was actually eating and reading – either a paper book or smartphone.

When Swedes speak, at least on public, they do it very calmly too. Don’t know if it’s my imagination but even announcements on the train station sounded gentle and quiet.

Another particularity I noticed in Sweden, is that people tend to be more individualistic compared to other countries. A lot of people spending time on their own in cafés and other places. Indeed, according to statistics, over half of Sweden’s households is made up of one person.

d. Laid back

Comparing to northern peoples and, especially, Germans I found Swedes to be more laid back and slightly more open.

People on the street make an eye contact more frequently and easily, whereas in Germany is more of the mauvais ton.

Another huge difference compared to German is that people are less concerned about their privacy when it comes to photographs. That’s fine, take your photo and go.

2. Life organization

I could have talked about lagom here but I haven’t read the book. Lagom seems to describe Swedish life approach very well. So instead I’ll focus on other aspects of life that Swedes in my opinion managed quiet well.

a. Cash-free

I spent 5 days in Sweden and haven’t used and not even seen the local money. I could pay everywhere with the phone (except of two places where I had to pay with the physical credit card).

Moreover, some places are clearly announced as cash-free places, meaning that you can pay only with a card/phone.

Sounds like a dream country for a geek like me. I think it’s safe and convenient, also transparent which could be an advantage and disadvantage for some.

b. Ecology and resource management

You might link the ecology and Sweden with the name of Greta Thunberg. Yet, Sweden is famous in ecology matters not (only) because of Greta.

Stockholm has been called a European Green Capital, and that’s because it implemented some of the unique systems of resource management. The one that impresses me most is the system where the sewage from toilets gets cleaned and transformed into biogas that in its turns powers the local buses.

Stockholm buses are powered by your poo! How cool does it sound!

The filtered water then is being emptied into the Baltic Sea.

Other than that, what I could spot in Stockholm as a tourist is that all paper towels are made of unbleached recycled paper, straws are mostly paper ones, disposable cutlery is wooden etc.

c. Modernization but in connection with nature

IKEA in Stockholm

Old town in Stockholm is cute but overall from my perspective all the new things that Swedes construct, arrange look better than the old ones. It’s no wonder IKEA was born in Sweden, even though IKEA is about functional things not the sustainable ones.

Stockholm seems a bit like a construction place. A lot of renovations, improvements, re-building. The new urban design looks very good to my taste. Swedes also know how to keep a connection to the nature, so Stockholm is a very modern but green city.

Another impression worth sharing is that Sweden seems to be the homeland of hipsters. Just because everything seems hipster here. At the same time not pretentious or artificial.

I haven’t made a thorough research on this subject but I dare to make an assumptions that hipsters are originally coming from Sweden. Don’t they?

c. Open-mindedness

This point could also be in section 1. People, nonetheless I decided to put in under section Life Organisation, as the open-mindedness both originates and directly impacts the way of life,

That being said, Sweden is a very open-minded country, to some – way too much.

My attitude to open-mindedness is obviously positive, at the same time I’m not a big fan of the common side effect of open societies nowadays.

Paradoxically, after reaching the high level of tolerance and acceptance, we go backwards and develop intolerance towards the ones who are not tolerant (aka have a unpopular opinion, act differently). The boundary between tolerance and openness vs. refusal of another view are getting thinner these days.

Anyway, I didn’t have a chance to see the degree of presence of such paradox in Sweden but what I could grasp is that inclusivity (race/sexual identification and other), feminism feel genuine and effortless here. It is just normal and from what I could see in 5 days I liked this attitude and ambiance.

3. Language

This was my first encounter with Swedish language which turned out to be quite close to German but even more to Dutch. I don’t speak Dutch but living there for a year I did learned the basics, which are super helpful in Sweden.

The words like betalen, nu, öppentidder, måndag, avstånd are almost identical to its Dutch equivalents. I think living in Sweden for a year or so would be enough to have a solid understanding and communication skills.

„Fika“ in Swedish means making time for friends and colleagues to share a cup of coffee and a little something to eat

One language peculiarity I perceived in Sweden that reflects also the mentality is that funny tendency to repeat words twice. As if Swedes try to sound more gently: tack tack [note]Thanks-thanks[/note], mumselimums [note]Yummy-yummy[/note], hej hej [note]Hi-hi[/note].

4. Nature

Sweden‘s nature reminds me a lot of the northern Russia – the Karelia region which borders the Finland. This made me feel nostalgic about my trips in that Russian area.

Same huge stones covered with moss, same soft soil covered with moss, berries and mushrooms, beautiful forests and lakes.

Normally, tourists go to take a ferry across the Stockholm archipelago, which I was originally planning too but due to the low-season, the timetable for the ferries was really poor so I opted for going to the Natural Park Tyresta 25km away from Stockholm.

It was a great way to have a tiny glimpse over the Swedish countryside (Swedish wooden houses also remind me a lot the Russian ones) and to enjoy the northern Scandinavian nature.

I covered here only a small part of my Swedish impressions and, definitely, only a teeny-tiny glimpse into the Swedish culture but hopefully it could be enough to spark the interest to this country and region.


1 Thanks-thanks

2 Yummy-yummy

3 Hi-hi

Posted by m.migalina in Travel

Book Review of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”

Book 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' by Jared Diamond

“Guns, Germs, and Steel” is truly a fundamental book that one should read to enlarge one’s vision.

You will not get a CLEAR picture of everything; that’s simply not possible taking into account the amount of information, countless angles, and scales for the same event.

However, what a passionate anthropologist, Jared Diamond, offers here is a vast framework for understanding how was the world shaped as modern humans know it. “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is a zoom out of the time and space to provide you with the widest possible view of what has been happening and is still happening on Earth for the past 200,000 years.

In one book, Jared Diamond manages to fit in and share his knowledge of history, anthropology, biology with genetics, geography and social sciences.

Using a plain language, the author extracts the juice from the global events to deliver the answers to the questions on why things went this way and not another, why did Europeans conquered Americas and not the other way around, to which extent some peoples were given an advantage contributing to a faster development and evolution compared to other ones.

Why didn’t capitalism flourish in Native Mexico, mercantilism in sub-Saharan Africa, scientific inquiry in China, advanced technology in Native North America, and nasty germs in Aboriginal Australia?

Why weren’t Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians?

For me, the sign that this work did influence my thinking, my whole being, was that feeling of childish excitement of discovery; it incited flow of thoughts and questions, inner dialogue and sometimes dispute with the author.

Posted by m.migalina in Books, 0 comments
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