An English Speaker in an English Speaking Land… and a Little Announcement

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life: The English Speaking Bubble, Edinburgh

At the top of Arthur’s Seat, overlooking Edinburgh.

Before Paris, we had the most lovely whirlwind of a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland.  We had gorgeous weather and a marvelous time together, just the five of us.  I long to tell you all about it – oh, how I do – but, for now, let’s just have a little peek into the wide, weird world of an English-speaking expat.

When you live in a foreign country and don’t speak the language, you get quite used to living in a bubble.  You may think the description cliché, but it’s spot on.

Inside the bubble, things are quiet.  Others may chat, giggle, debate, argue, or whisper around you.  But the funny thing is… you don’t really hear any of it.

There’s no picking up a snippet from the teenagers here or a stray comment from the elderly couple there.  You have absolutely no idea if the person next to you is gossiping about her best friend or discussing the finer points of Nietzsche.

When you open up your mouth to speak in your native language (because, of course, that’s what tumbles out first), those outside the bubble either stare or ignore you.  It’s impossible to tell whether you’re understood or not because interaction simply does.not.happen.

In some ways, you’re… invisible.

In other ways, you’re on display for all the world (okay, the train) to see.  Eating out, grocery shopping, waiting for the bus.. these are all relatively quiet affairs.  It’s a silent phenomenon, one that sneaks up on you and becomes firmly ingrained while you remain oblivious, until…

One day, you find yourself in another place, a land where everyone hears, understands, and -gasp- speaks to you.  This isn’t a forced exchange full of necessities and awkward pronunciation.  No, here the conversation is effortless.

The bubble bursts.  And suddenly, everything just got a whole.lot.LOUDER.

You try to finish your lunch, but the girl in the booth next to you just won’t shut up about her problems with the landlady. 

The college kids sitting behind you on the bus are bragging about how many countries they’ve visited (three), how cultured they now are, and how that one time they… was just SO funny!

A man stops on the street mid-stride to suggest you try the coffee shop (his favorite) around the corner because you’re discussing where you should go to warm up on this chilly morning. 

You ask the bus driver to help you figure out which stop is closest to your holiday apartment, and he agrees, smiles (!), and gives a shout when you’re nearly there.

It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced it, but going to a foreign country and hearing English spoken is really very strange.

We’ve come to expect this hokey-smokes-we-can-understand-everyone-and-CRAP-they-understand-us phenomenon when we go back to the US.  We become a bit disconcerted on the plane when flight attendants greet our children and make conversation. (Can you imagine someone talking to your child on the street and completely excluding you because they can tell you don’t understand?  For us, this is our normal.) This disorientation grows until we finally recoil in utter shock when the cashier at the sparkly, big-box grocery store chats us up.

“How y’all doin’ today?”

Say, what?!

This is reverse culture shock, and we live it every time we go to America.

But it was a new thing for us to experience a foreign country without a foreign language.  It was… fantastic.  Comforting.  Therapeutic.  Welcome…

Since we know it will be our last year to live in our current city, we often try to imagine ourselves as residents in the places we visit.  Could we live here?  Would we want to?

And while Scotland would take a lot of getting used to (I’ve never stared at traffic, drivers, and cars so much in my life – how do they drive on the left?), at least we would be insiders in a way.

Language.  We miss so much being outside the deutschsprachig circle here in Germany.  We cannot fight or fend for ourselves in many situations.  ‘Tis true that I have only myself, my lack of time, commitment, and determination to blame.  It is our/my struggle, and often brings me/us shame.

So, in between language blunders and fragmented exchanges, we wonder.  How important is it?  Should we make every effort to become fluent?  Is it time to pop the bubble and live out loud?

My answer… is yes.

And so with this long-winded attempt to explain the freakish feelings we experienced in Scotland, I have a small announcement to make.

I’m taking a break.

It’s not you.. it’s me.

I love this blog for many reasons.  It’s been my creative outlet for nearly four years.  It’s pushed me to explore some really random corners of the world as well as to find the marvels and miracles amid the many mishaps of (my) expat life.

But, most of all, I have loved meeting all of you.  I have made real life friends because of this blog, and truth be told, I don’t intend to stop.  While I need to set aside the time I normally spend here at Thrifty Travel Mama to study German, I don’t plan on disappearing completely.  I may post sporadic updates and quick recaps of our trips.  But, I won’t be able to create regularly scheduled content for at least a few months.

I still plan to answer comments (though you may have better luck with email), and I will still be reading your posts and cheering for your adventures.  I hope, when I’m finally able again, that you’ll be back to champion mine as well.

Wish me luck – it’s going to be DEAFENING out there.


37 thoughts on “An English Speaker in an English Speaking Land… and a Little Announcement

  1. Oh, wow! I can’t tell you how much I understand this, after spending the past ten years living in Japan and Germany and not being close to fluent in Japanese or German. At least in Japan, people didn’t stare and also didn’t expect foreigners to know Japanese. Funny, we visited Scotland two years ago and had an experience similar to yours (except we understand all about driving on the left side after living in Japan–it’s actually not hard!). Anyway, I think it’s great that you are taking some time to learn more German; I really should do the same, rather than just picking up snippets here and there. I know a lot of words but don’t really know how to put them all together!

    • That’s spot on – I also know lots of words, but don’t know how to put them all together! Interesting that the Japanese don’t expect foreigners to know the language. Are you currently in Japan or Germany?

      • We’ve been in Germany for over four years. My kids are older (one is back in the States in her first year of college, and the other is in the DoD high school here), so they have never been in German schools and are not fluent in German. They did both take two years of German in their school, though. Japanese is such a tough language for English-speakers because there are no cognates, and the written language takes many years to master. We found that most Japanese people were happily surprised when we would try out our bits of rudimentary Japanese. Of course, we stood out as Caucasians, so we never had that awkward moment we so often experience here…

      • That makes sense – if you don’t look the part, you probably aren’t expected to play it. Do you find it hard to make friends with Germans who aren’t married to expats without knowing the language very well?

      • Yes, it’s definitely hard for us to make German friends! I think we envisioned everyone in our village wanting to befriend us. Ha! Various people have been nice, but it doesn’t go too far–we are acquaintances, not friends. Our neighbors on one side have been really friendly and good to us–an older German couple (he speaks almost no English but has a fun sense of humor; she learned English by working on the military base for a while years ago).

      • That’s been our experience as well – nice, but stuck in the acquaintance stage. Here’s to blunders, attempts, and successes in German that will hopefully lead to new friendships (for you too!).

  2. I’ll be pulling for you! I’ve just started up a new term of French, and you’ve inspired me to try to really dig in this term, but also reminded me that it won’t happen unless there’s some sacrifice in other areas. I remember the first time we visited family in England after moving here (though we’d visited before when we still lived in the US). Even in the airport before we left, we suddenly stared at each other and said, “Wait a second, they are all going to be speaking English there! That’s going to be so exciting and weird!” And it was. And sensory-overload and loud. But cool.

    • Yes, loud but cool – that nails it! It’s hard to make it a priority when I would rather be doing other things. But I’m trying to remind myself that this language learning adventure is an investment in the future of my little bilinguals (and for my aging brain!). How’s the French coming along?

  3. I know the feeling (though all the Dutch speak English so I have more of an awkward moment when you see people notice your confusion and then switch languages), and this is very aptly put. Enjoy your language journey – it’s wonderful and frustrating, but so very worth it. =)

    • Hi Ace! I sometimes have that awkward moment too (many Germans also speak English), but I think the expectation is higher here that everyone should (try to) speak German. And though you can get by with preschool Deutsch, I’ve found you won’t have many real friendships with (non-expat) Germans unless you speak the language. Wonderful and frustrating – exactly! You all are describing this process so well! How’s your Dutch? 🙂

  4. I definitely know the feeling and I appreciate you being able to prioritise your time (instead of letting the internet suck it all away, which is too easy to do). I’m a little disappointed as well, of course 🙂 but I’ll see you when you get back and it’ll be a great catch up by then, I’m sure.

  5. I think it will be so much fun to learn another language! I can’t imagine living without being able to socially interact. My hubby jokes that I make friends with anyone I’m standing in line with. 🙂 I will miss your updates, but wish you the best of luck in this new endeavor and look forward to seeing your updates when you post! Take care!!

  6. Good luck with it all… I tried, I really did, but now I have told myself that as we are most definitely not here forever, there is little point in wasting any more time on lessons! Thankfully my children take after their father with their language skills, so three out of four speaking the language ain’t bad! 😀

  7. LOVE the idea! Learn the language, dive in there and really get to know the country and the people. They will explain and answer all the questions you were asking yourself, from “why belts in some German cars do not need to lock (except from in actual accidents)”, along “why many Germans belief that bringing up a child is not about protecting it from any harm, but about preparing it for the (sometimes rough) world out there”, to “why an compulsory health insurance that is covering every single inhabitant in a country can not cover a private room for every patient”.
    But most important, you will not feel so isolated and alone anymore!
    What makes learning a new language easier: Be forced to understand and speak! Join a playgroup, a sports-team or a choir. Start with single words, hands, drawings and a dictionary. You don’t have to be fluent to be understood. Don’t be afraid you will make mistakes! Best is, to do something where you have a common topic or goal or activity to have a basis. My first thing in a new country always is: Find a volleyball-team for me and a playgroup for the kids (and me).
    Let me know, if you need any help!

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  9. Good luck with your German learning! We’ve been in Germany for two years tomorrow, and my two older kids (5 and 3) are fluent, that 19 month old doesn’t talk.
    I took lessons for the Integrationskurs A1 before he was born and found that when I was taking lessons every day my german improve really fast! I’m about level B1 now and really enjoying the challenge of learning more.
    As for being deafened by English, I had exactly that experience in London last year – my tube journey was just atrocious!
    I came across your blog looking for travelling tips for long haul flights, so I’ve just been having a browse. We are also in South West Germany, just over the border from Basel.

    • Hi Lucy,
      Thanks for stopping by! We must be close to each other; we’re 1 hour from Basel. I took one week of intensive before my 20 month-old son was born, and it was helpful, but too much. I couldn’t keep up with the homework and the kids. So far, 2-3x/week plus homework and trying to not ask, “Do you speak English?” has been good enough for me. Ha – I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who is jolted by hearing unexpected English all day long :).

      • Glad the learning is going well so far!
        We are in the States on holiday this minute, and now that I’ve got over the bombardment of English, I’m enjoying eavesdropping 😉 did hear some German being spoken too though!

  10. Stumbled upon your blog. We are expats in Scotland, and while I can’t imagine living in a country where they don’t speak English, I will say it’s interesting here as well. Before we came here, my husband’s relo department told us that the UK is rated the hardest country to expatriate to by Americans because we think it’s just like America. And then you get here and realize how different it is and throws you off a bit. I have a hard time understanding some of the stronger accents, but they ARE speaking English so it’s awkward because of that. I will say, driving on the wrong side of the road is no biggie – after 3 months, you’ll be cruising around like you own the place. 😉 But the friendships with locals has been the most interesting. We decided to place our children in local schools, so I have daily interaction with locals. And they are friendly. But the people who have reached out the most are the other foreigners! lol. So I’m living in Scotland with friends from Pakistan and Africa! But mostly Americans, I must admit. No doubt in time I’ll build relationships with other Scots (I hope!). The good news is, in Scotland, they like Americans. I’m told all the time how much they like my accent (what accent, they have the accent!), and they always tell us they’ve been to Florida. Good for you for taking the time to learn the language…my dad spent many years in Germany as a teenager (army brat) and he still knows a bit of German, I wish we could sponge a new language the kids do.

    • Hi Kristen! I’m so glad you stumbled on over here. I hadn’t heard before that the UK is one of the hardest, but that makes sense. Actually, we’ve had some of the same thoughts about living here (Germany is so modern, clean, safe, etc – so why is it so hard?!). Good to know the driving adjustment is no biggie. An English friend of mine here says the only time it’s dangerous is when you come up to a roundabout and no one else is on the road ;). Don’t you love that you have friends from all over the world? But I agree, it would be nicer to have more relationships with locals. It makes me want to be a better friend to foreigners and non native speakers when we go back to America. And I laughed out loud about the accents. I once told an Australian friend that Americans don’t think they have any accent and they couldn’t believe it. I wonder why as a culture we think that – quite interesting! I will have to check out your posts about living in Scotland. We loved it there (and the flights were so cheap!).

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  13. I just stumbled upon your blog via pinterest. The hubby and I lived in Scotland (Edinburgh, then Aberdeen) for 4 years and had our first child there. We loved it. Maybe because both of us were working, we easily were able to make friends with locals (I say this just because of a previous comment). In fact some of our best friends are friends we made while living there. The cold did take some time to get used to. But, the slower placed culture (compared to America) is amazing and a way I wish I could always live.

    • Hi Jessica,
      I have heard wonderful things about living in Scotland (and I loved visiting!). I’m so glad you had a positive expat experience, and you’ll always be tied to the country since your first child was born there. Thanks so much for stopping by! 🙂

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