But but – it’s not only, only!

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(Not quite the tower of babel, but it will do)

So let’s talk about language, or rather living with a foreign language and how it affects me.

Having lived in Scotland for 12 years now, I have been speaking English as my main language for as many years, and often find that I don’t really consider it a second language anymore, even though it is. (In fact it’s technically my third language)

A lot of people get very surprised when they find out that English isn’t my first language, and exclaim that it is impossible to tell because I have no accent. Which is maybe true if you listen to it superficially, however if you really pay attention, there will probably be some things that give me away, especially when I use typically Swedish or Norwegian terms that I just translate directly into English, rather than finding the English equivalent to the word.

For example the notion of “toastbread” is pretty much accepted at home now, and Pete knows exactly what I mean when I say we need to buy some (It is just bread that you toast in case you didn’t figure it out). Pete also know what I mean when I say that the soft-drink is now “dead” (flat) or if I ask him to bring the oven through (that is the portable heater)

I grew up in Norway but within a Swedish family so ever since I was born I have spoken and switched between the two languages. I don’t actually remember speaking just the one, although I must have started speaking Swedish first as that is the language we used at home. Switching between the two I don’t find hard at all, and we were lucky I guess in where we lived being so close to the border that everyone pretty much understood what we said, so there was never any issues with me and my sister speaking Swedish to each other even though we were in a big group of friends. I don’t think my cousins had quite the same luxury as they grew up on the opposite end of Norway and none of their friends understood Swedish. The two languages are very similar, however obviously they are still different enough that some people struggle to understand the other. If you add the wonders of regional dialects in there, it can make it pretty impossible for some people to understand the other language if they are not used to hearing it.

But anyway, my theory is that because I grew up switching between the two languages, I found it easier to adapt to speaking English and picking up on the accent. I don’t have any sort of evidence to back this up whatsoever, but it’s the best explanation I can think of. When we started learning English in school, it quickly became my favourite subject and I was rather good at it. Of course in Norway we are also exposed to English speaking TV-series and movies that aren’t dubbed so we get a feel for how it should sound that way.

When I moved to Scotland, I probably sounded a lot more American than I do now, for that reason, and as I started hanging out with the locals (or Pete rather, we practically moved in together after 3 months) I did start to pick up on the local dialect. I definitely picked up on the use of “aye” quite quickly, and also “shite” Yeah.. that will be Pete’s influence.

Later on I have gotten more used to the local dialect – doric. If you have seen Brave it is the dialect that the comic relief character who speaks really weird and nobody understands is talking. I definitely knew I had lived here long enough when I sat in the cinema and understood every single word he said and knowing I wasn’t really meant to! Good Een!

So you would think that everything is great and that there are no issues for me getting on with life with a second language. And I guess that’s true to a certain extent. In fact it’s almost going in the opposite direction now, I find that when I get in situations with work where I have to speak or write Norwegian I find it quite tricky because I have no experience of a professional Norwegian work jargon, and probably sound really informal when writing emails or making work calls to Norway.

I have also started to notice when speaking to my friends back home that whilst they sound a lot more grown up in their language, my Norwegian seems a bit stuck in the language that 19 year old me spoke when I left, including local slang words and all.  – I basically sound like an adult trying to be down with the kids and speaking cool, who is failing miserably because no one speaks like that anymore! I have discussed this a bit with an older friend over here, who has told me that this is actually quite common in ex-pats and there is a word for it, but I can’t remember it just now.

At the same time, I do struggle with English sometimes, and I don’t think I have actually realised that I am struggling with it until quite recently. It isn’t really that tangible, and not really a big issue, but I do find it hard sometimes to word myself properly when put into situations where I am expected to provide an answer or explain how I mean on the spot.

This is mostly in situations where I am trying to explain a problem or an issue to a boss or someone else with some sort of authority, and I feel like I just end up babbling and not managing to get my point across the way I would like it too. –  It basically sounds good in my head, but doesn’t translate properly into what I am saying. Does that make sense? Whether this is a language issue or just me being nervous I am not so sure about, however speaking to some other ex-pats at work who have the same problems (and are actually managers) I am starting to think that the fact that it’s not my native language might have a bigger impact than I originally thought.  – This is very frustrating!

In Norway there is a saying that we have – Men, men, det er ikke bare, bare! which translates into “but, but, it’s not only only…” clear as mud right? Essentially it means something like “Oh well, it’s not always easy” and so I think this describes quite well how I feel about speaking English and how some people (myself included) take it for granted that this is something that comes naturally to me.

Are you living in a place where you have to speak a different language than your native one? How do you feel about it? Do you recognise anything of the above or is it just me? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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20 Responses to But but – it’s not only, only!

  1. Sophie says:

    I recognize myself in a lot of this! I grew up in a Francophone family but in the English part of Canada, so I have also been used to switching between two languages for as long as I can remember. For me, French was my first language but because I’ve never lived in a French place, I also feel weirdly uncool speaking it! I totally get what you mean when you write about speaking to people your age and sounding super old/uncool … such a strange idea! These days I actually get really embarrassed speaking to French people in French, which is just ridiculous.
    Because I live in the Netherlands I end up speaking quite a lot of English still so I haven’t had the same problem in that language, except that I have apparently acquired something of a Dutch tone of speaking according to friends back home – a harsher, shorter way of speaking … oops!

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    • Hiya – Yes I know exactly what you mean – we never lived in Sweden either, so we developed a very “standard” Swedish with no sort of dialect or anything. My parents were always told well done for teaching their kids to speak “properly” lol

      I find languages really fascinating actually, there is definitely more to it that the actual words that are spoken – like you say, there will be things like how many words a language uses to construct a sentence, which can come across as short or harsh to other people.

      I actually saw a really interesting documentary about languages where they described how the further south in Europe you go, the more words are used to express yourself, which could be connected to the fact that it’s quite densely populated and historically, people have had to put more effort into getting their point across. Then as you move further and further north the sentences shorten the less populated it gets as you wouldnt have to say much to know that people would listen to what you say anyway.
      This would be the same in dialects as well so that one sentence being said in south of Sweden would take up say, 6 words, whereas in the North of Sweden they would only use two words to express the same meaning!
      This makes me sound like a right language geek, haha, but I found that really fascinating!

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      • Sophie says:

        I’m a total language geek and find that theory really interesting! Thank you for sharing. I also get that from people – that my French is very proper. Great in professional settings, not so much when trying to make friends!

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  2. I’m just completely impressed by your ability to speak 3 languages! x

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  3. Fantastic post! So so interesting to learn this much about you. And fascinating about your language being stuck at a fixed point in time when you go home – I had never considered that, but can absolutely see how that can happen.

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    • oh thank you – I’m glad you liked the post, I was a bit worried it would come across as a bit of a boring topic to be honest!

      And yeah it’s actually something I never thought was a big deal until I started thinking about it last year when I was listening to my old friend speaking to her husband and it got me thinking how she sounded so grown up compared to myself! It was actually a bit of a relief hearing from someone that it’s “a thing” and not just me – I just wish I remember what it was called now!

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  4. Living in Yorkshire is like learning a different language sometimes. 🙂
    The last time I saw you I was like holly shit you sound really Aberdonian haha!

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  5. Kristen says:

    love this post! obviously i came from one english speaking country and went to another so you’d think it wouldn’t be a big deal.. but i’ve of course picked up on their words and the way they say things.. some people tell me i don’t have an accent, and when i speak to people at home they tell me i sound american. but honestly, i had to start speaking like that because it gets really old really fast when people cant understand you. i worked at a restaurant and if i asked people ‘eat here or takeaway?’ they didn’t understand me, so i had to switch to ‘dine in or take out?’. i worked at a bank for a bit and when i’d ask people for their ‘debit card’ it sounded like ‘cahd’ and i would have to repeat it 10 times whilst making the card shape with my hands.. so i gave up and started saying card. i kinda hate it but thats what happens when you move overseas. i still use some of my words but i’ve given up on others. my husband does say some of my words to make me happy, like tea for dinner or jumper for sweater. he says sayings and stuff too, which i never pick up on as different cause they aren’t different to me.. make sense? anyway.
    oh and i feel you on the slang and that. i saw something on facebook the other day and i didn’t know the word, and i had to ask and it was just like ‘cool’ or something. i dont know whats going on over there anymore and it makes you feel .. removed (duh) but here i also feel out of place a bit.. i don’t know, i’m rambling now!

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    • Yeah you would think moving from one english speaking country to another it shouldn’t be an issue so its interesting to hear that other people have similar experiences. Just goes to show that there is so much more to language than just the words!

      And removed is spot on! You definitely feel that others are ‘moving on’ and you are kind of cut off from that process. I guess this gets more noticeable the longer you have lived away. I find it quite frustrating now that even when speaking to family or friends I can struggle to think of words that would have previously got to me immediately and this makes me a bit sad because it feels like I am loosing grasp of my native language when at the same time I am not fully fluent in the replacement language.

      Again, probably not noticeable to anyone else but myself and you’re always your worst critic arent you?

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  6. Mimmi says:

    This is such an interesting post! I can really relate. I’ve always been a language-person, so switching between languages has never been a huge issue for me, but it did take me a while to get used to speaking English daily when I moved to Scotland. I’ve always had more of a typically London/English accent, but since moving here I’ve picked up certain Scottish phrases and pronounciations, so now my accent is even more of a weird mix. And I’m definitely guilty of sometimes translating something directly from Swedish to English and therefore making up a completely new word, haha.
    Another funny thing is that my mum recently told me that my way of speaking in Swedish has changed since I moved here. Apparently I go up at the end of the sentences, even though I’m not aware of doing it!
    I could go on talking about this forever (languages are fascinating!), but I’ll stop rambling now.

    xx Mimmi, Muted Mornings

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    • It’s amazing how quickly you adapt isnt it? It will be interesting to see how you speak when you go home after a few months speaking english. I certainly found thst the translation and invention of new words worked both ways. A lot of Scottish sayings got ‘swedified’ in the last few years 😉

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  7. I think I have a bit of the opposite.
    I can empathise with you absolutely on this, especially being surrounded by people who speak English as there second/third/’I don’t even what to know because I’m ashamed I only speak one language’ language.

    I can hear when something is a literal translation and it makes sense, but doesn’t sound natural at the same time, but usually I just go with it and we smile and laugh it off when it’s something quite ridiculous. Like one colleague telling me she was ‘going to sleep with her boyfriend tonight’ but she really meant to say she was staying at his place. I couldn’t help but laugh a little.

    Definitely the on the spot thing. No one has any problems going about their day in English but when you put them on the spot, then it’s hard sometimes for the answers to come out. Funny thing though, when we talk mostly about science everyone finds it much easier in English because the words don’t exist in Dutch/Flemish or the other language options we’ve got floating about our department.

    I have a bit of the opposite effect, when I am also put on the spot or I want to talk in a more professional tone, I find I’m not as well understood in general conversational because on the stop makes me talk faster and I feel the need to go all BBC on people when I have to talk publicly. I usually have to rephrase myself and use less specific English words sometimes.

    I do enjoy throwing dialect slang and just general random words out there to see if anyone works it out. Tbh, I think none of us fully understand each other whether it’s accents or words and we just roll with it haha.

    Oh my. Long comment is long.

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  8. Jess says:

    That’s cool – 3 languages is impressive. I struggle with speaking English at work and it’s my only language :). I reword my emails that go out to everyone a thousand times.

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  9. bevchen says:

    I love this post! I live in Germany, and I think I can write a business e-mail better in German than in English (although in German there will be many subtle grammatical mistakes!). But on the other hand if I’m put on the spot, I randomly forget simple German words. Luckily my colleagues tend to know what I’m on about and just fill in the missing words for me. It also helps that I work at a translation agency and avery German translator here has English as their first foreign language.

    I *think* I’m still doing okay with slang, etc. Mostly from seeing what my younger cousins write to each other on Facebook. At least when I speak to people back home I don’t sound too odd… at least that I’ve noticed. Maybe they all just humour me? 😉

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    • Yep – my “work language” is defintiely English first and foremost! I would really struggle to write formal emails in Norwegian or English. Luckily my industry is English speaking, so even if I worked in Norway I would probably mainly use English anyway!

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