The good old language struggle

Yesterday I was thinking of the downs of living “abroad”. I must say I very rarely put myself this question, but I know that this is a very relatable topic to most expats. If you are one, you might immediately have a whole spectrum of ideas on it. Things like the absence of friends and family might automatically pop into your mind, or the missing of certain foods, your hometown, the weather, or a type of human warmth very specific to where you come from. Personally, the following sentence immediately banged in my head:

Will I ever get used to making mistakes in almost every single sentence, or group of sentences I articulate? 

The biggest challenge I face as an expat is the fact that I am not able to express myself the way I could back in Portugal. When confronted with limitations, one becomes especially aware of how it feels not to have them. And it seems like a miracle to me now how one’s native language flows within. How you effortlessly communicate what you want in your language, the way you want, without giving it much conscious thought.

Don’t get me wrong, my level of English is advanced and I speak fluent Dutch, but somehow I never seem to get satisfied with my proficiency level in neither of them. First of all, my skills in the Portuguese language set a very very high bar in any other language I attempt to learn or improve. Second, most of my creative work is in English. I write, and mostly perform in English, and having to confront myself with a certain degree of language restriction is probably my biggest of daily frustrations.

The notion of “being abroad” is for me – I came to realize -, directly related to language.  A language is an undefinable place: it does give you some sense of direction, but it doesn’t necessarily correspond to a physical location. It does correspond to a sense of intimacy, instead. Now, I don’t have a very strong bond with my country of birth when compared to other fellow expats, but my native lexicon, Portuguese, used to be my preciousss (Smeagol style). My self-esteem used to depend on my communication skills. The way in which I could put myself and my inner world into words was the measure of my own worth. I guess I still work like that, and that’s why I made myself learn Dutch, as fast as I was able to. I just couldn’t stand the fact that I didn’t fully grasp the world around me, that I couldn’t navigate it. I refused to be “imprisoned outside”.

Living abroad, I had to get used to expressing myself differently from the way I would, back home. And at first, it didn’t really matter. I was busy meeting people, happily absorbing whole new cultures around me, reinventing myself, surviving. What’s more, I love languages. When I had my first Portuguese friend visiting me in Amsterdam, I remember asking him to just keep on speaking English to me (imagine that). This, of course, doesn’t happen anymore, but that’s how committed I was to my life abroad. The beginner’s adrenaline made me, for the longest time, divert from a deeper loss: language allowed me to live creatively on a verbal level. Not anymore, or at least not in the standards I was used to. Back in Portugal, I could say exactly what I felt – in a regular way, or with more refinement, or in poetic fashion, or intentionally in a rough way -, depending on the situation. I could surprise others with certain words or expressions, I could, more often, make people laugh. It allowed me for a sort of playfulness which, in return, made me feel smart.


“I do not write in Portuguese. I write myself” / Fernando Pessoa

In a way, words are the matter from which we are made of: it is through them that we perceive, reflect, and interact with the world around us. Through them we create. Through them we are. My native language was more than a sense of identity. It meant freedom. Just now, after 5,5 years living in The Netherlands, I feel that I have a full understanding of this. So there’s this little part of me which is mourning. And that’s okay. I feel happier living abroad than what I used to be when in Portugal, so this is a consequence of a very conscious decision of mine. But there’s one thing I have to tell you: when I now go on my once-a-year holiday to Portugal, my favorite activity isn’t laying on the beach anymore, nor swimming in the ocean, nor eating pastéis de nata. My absolute favorite thing is speaking with people. Chatting, making small talk: on the lift, in a shop, on the streets, basically everywhere. This verbal connection which fills me with joy, right from the gut, is incomparable to anything else. And you know what’s beautiful in all this? The Portuguese language will always remain this happy cherished zone deep within me,  a solace, to which I can always resort to.

Hey, but what’s the biggest struggle you face as an expat? Do you have any language struggles at all? Let’s start a conversation in the comments down below!

(Photo on the header: first Blogger’s meet-up at Tula Amsterdam. Credits: Amsterdamian)

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15 thoughts on “The good old language struggle

  1. Amsterdive

    From Australia to Hong Kong – I can imagine the process of adaptation being challenging! Thanks for your comment and good luck in your Chinese adventure 🙂

  2. Stuart | Invading Holland

    Yes. I agree with this so much. Beyond struggling to understand a lot of stuff the biggest problem I find is trying to express myself. Sure I can communicate but that is not the same as expressing something. I wonder if I will ever get there.

    1. Amsterdive

      It is all about the subtle things, isn’t it? When you are speaking your native language, you can express yourself in ways that are so much richer and more nuanced, and that makes communication all the more interesting and fun. I assume your language struggles are with the Dutch language, am I right?

  3. amsterfamily

    Eek. We are relocating to Amsterdam right now. Our kids will start Dutch school in September and so I have to learn Dutch asap. I can’t imagine being fluent in any other language – us Brits are terrible linguists – but I’m going to try. Oh, and we have a Portuguese cafe around the corner from us in our Amsterdam place that apparently does amazing pastéis de nata – am looking forward to trying some.

    1. Amsterdive

      Look at it from the bright side: learning Dutch with your kids will possibly make it way more fun than if you didn’t have them as motivation. And less stressful as well, because with them you can really do it step by step, in a simple and playful way. Where is that Portuguese cafe by the way? Is it “A Loja”? 🙂

      1. amsterfamily

        That is true; it will be something new to all learn together. You don’t get many chances to learn alongside your kids. And YES it is A Loja! Keeping my nata addiction alive!!!

      2. Amsterdive

        I still have to visit that place, I passed by once but it happened to be their resting day. Maybe we bump into each other there one of these days! 🙂

  4. Erik @ Hey Chelito!

    You nailed it for me. I am having a house remodeled in Nicaragua, communicating with the builder can be frustrating at sometimes. I use the wrong tense often or try to translate directly from English, that doesn’t always work. What makes things worse is that Nicaraguans don’t anunciate. There mouths barely move sometimes.

  5. anamericansadventuresinjapan

    I recently moved to Japan from America, and it is really comforting to hear someone else talk about language barriers and all too! Good luck with your next adventure!!! Also, if you are interested, lately I’ve been writing about living in Japan on my blog. Feel free to check it out!!!

  6. frood

    While not comparable, I also find the reverse a thing. Living in Amsterdam surrounded by people who have English as a second language, I find I have to moderate my vocabulary and manner of speaking a fair bit to be understood all the time. I fear I’ll sound like a bit of a simpleton next time I visit home. And then by the time I return, I’ll be back with my native accent back in full swing, unable to be understood here again.

    1. Amsterdive

      Oh yeah, I feel you. I’ve some native English speaking friends who report just the same. The English spoken here is a basic sort of ‘international English’. Even I struggle with that because as soon as I start speaking in a more complex manner I feel out of place, or people don’t fully understand what I mean.

  7. Rave Kanth

    The struggle is real 🙂 After all this years I have come to realise that I haven’t got any language support to fall back on. I have come to terms with the fact (though that hasn’t discouraged me yet) that I would have to juggle my mouth, hands, and feet and try to connect to people. At the same time quietly hoping they can relate to everything I communicate. All the while wishing that one day I’ll be able to understand the joy my friends living abroad talk about, when they get to speak their native language after ages.

    1. Amsterdive

      Thank you for such a heartfelt comment dear Rave! I guess this helped you to really connect easily to others. You were an empathy magnet at WTSS so I guess this situation also brought you some beautiful assets 🙂

  8. Pingback: Will I ever have enough friends in the Netherlands? – A M S T E R D I V E

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