I Need Some Minutes

My spoken English is falling apart. After two weeks in a foreign country and working with a team of people from 20 different countries, I can hear my English eroding away. I don't know why I have this strong urge to imitate the way everyone around me is speaking.

Maybe it is some vestige of an evolutionary adaptation to fit in with crowd, as if acceptance guarantees a better chance of survival in a species designed to survive in a social structure. Maybe I subconsciously feel that if I speak in my natural manner no one will understand me if English is not their native language. Or maybe it's just that I think all these accents and awkward forms of expression are cute.

Whatever the reason, I find myself using phrases such as:
Do we go now together to lunch? instead of Ready for lunch?
Do you put that on the desk over there? instead of Can you put that on my desk?
We are meeting at what time? instead of When do you want to meet?

Every idiom feels like an insult or a means to deceive the people I am conversing with. This poor French woman I am working with. She spent a whole morning puzzling over the phrase 'coming up to speed' that I had used in an email to her.

In my caution to ensure that my messages are received and that I understand what people are saying in return, I feel like conversations become very stilted. My personality doesn't feel the same when I am speaking broken English. It comes across as too serious, too polite, too stiff. Sometimes I even think that people dread talking to me because of the extra work involved with communicating in English. I feel almost guilty about my inability to give them a rest and speak in their language for awhile.

Regardless, I admire how well all of my colleagues and the Basel locals express themselves in a foreign language. I catch glimmers of how funny and mischievous some of them are. I just wish we could relax into our real personalities and free ourselves from the constraints of the rough tools for expression that a foreign language restricts us too.

I am tired now. I go to bed.


rebecca said...

Don't sweat it.... learning some German is certainly worthwhile to help communication and show that you will put in a little effort, too.

But, in English, the thing is, people DO understand you better when you speak a little awkwardly- for one thing, it slows you down (speed is usually a problem) and for another, it takes out the sayings and phrases that you usually put in (always a problem for communication). I have learned to pronounce all of the sylables in a word (not easy with a Pittsburghese background) and slow down. Yes, you feel like you are loosing a little of your personality, but think of how you colleagues must feel, speaking in a foreign language all the time.

You will going to get there.

Expat Traveler said...

Rebecca has some great points. Everyone told me that I have a European accent after a while in Switzerland. I completely slowed down my talking speed because yes that is the problem. And also I found I started forgetting how to say things in English. And as well, I started saying things differently and wrong.

My funniest phrase was "oh my gosh". Don't worry, all languages have funny phrases too...

megan said...

At least you're still speaking in your native tongue. It is really important that you 'break' your english down to the basics. The key is effective communication and idioms don't fit into that.

Coming over here I learned to speak in 'international english' and cut out all the slang, idioms, pop culture references and jokes. And I felt the same way at first, how could I be myself if I couldn't be myself? But you adapt and find other ways to express your personality in a way everyone will understand.

You're ahead of the game: Some people work abroad for years and never figure this out, unaware that often their colleagues go to other native speakers for 'decoding' advice about what they just heard.

lobstah said...

Wow, a european accent on top of a New England accent on top of a southern accent on top of a Philadelphia accent!

That's gotta sound sweeeeet! Hee hee.

Kirk said...

Just wait until you start going on "holiday" instead of "vacation" and giving temperatures in centigrade instead of fahrenheit...

Berlinbound said...

I do the same thing - picking up the broken English I get back from the natives here in return for my broken German ... that mixed with a heavy dose of two-year-old speak ... "Papa go bed now."

James said...

I know what you mean. When I speak English now it seems as if it is Greman translated on one of those free online translations sites like www.freetranslation.com. It is strange for me learning German and finding my English slipping away....just a little. I am finding myself understanding more German now than ever....Good luck to you finding an apartment. Dont work to hard---remember life is too short to work all the time!!!!