There are many practical difficulties involved in trying to function day-to-day in a language that you don’t speak or understand well, even if you speak or understand a little. There’s ordering in restaurants and making sure you got the right change at the grocery store, of course. And things get additionally complicated when you are trying to get a mobile phone or talk to a potential landlord.
But there’s problems that arise that don’t necessarily seem obvious on the surface, and I’ll venture to say that they are additionally stressful if you are naturally pretty introverted and are taxed by social interactions in general. If you add a dose of needing a bit too badly for every single person to like you and judge you kindly to that, it’s even worse. Because going out every day and living life in a country where you can’t communicate all that well means learning to cope with the fact that you are going to sometimes be perceived as unintelligent, that people are going to get frustrated with you, and that you aren’t going to be able to read people and adapt to interpersonal interactions in the way that you are used to.
I learned enough Russian before coming here to make life significantly easier than if I hadn’t. But because of lack of exposure to native speakers and my learning style, I read and write it a lot better than I speak and understand it. So over the past few days, virtually every time someone has come at me in Russian, I’ve just sort of frozen and either looked at the person accompanying me or stammered out, “Я не говорю по-русский” (I don’t speak Russian). I’m assured that this will improve substantially in a few months time. But in the meantime, it takes a little bit extra effort to go do normal stuff because in addition to the hassles of trying to communicate, I have to confront a sense of exposure, vulnerability, and ineptitude that is distinctly uncomfortable. I suppose that’s what makes this a character-building experience.
I have to keep in mind, however, that English is in many ways an aspirational language. In just a few days, I’ve had multiple Russians tell me I don’t really need much Russian to get by and to express wonder that more young people in this country don’t learn it. I was hired to help Russian college students become better writers in English because it’s a critical competency that they need if they want to enter the international academic and business communities. “English is the language of the world,” one person–who speaks five languages–said in response to my lament that American students receive relatively little foreign language education.
It’s perhaps for that reason that my interactions with Russians have involved more confusion and awkwardness than outright hostility (though I’m sure there will be some of that eventually). No one on Russian television has said that these Americans should learn Russian or go back to their own country. And while xenophobia is a thing here and there surely are those who hold that sentiment, I think that does suggest something about the relative privilege native English-speakers experience.
David Sedaris said in one of his books that there are two types of French: hard French and easy French. Hard French involves the conjugation of verbs and memorization of vocabulary. Easy French is just English spoken slowly and loudly in a French person’s face. The sense of entitlement that informs Easy French isn’t something I identify with. And that’s not because I’m such a good person. It’s because I am an awkward person who cares too much about what people think of me. Still, this experience makes me think about the foreign visitors and immigrants and exchange students I’ve encountered back in the U.S. who have had very little English and the exasperated attitudes I’ve heard expressed by all sorts of people, including fellow educators. It sucks to think that I might be the target of that sort of hostility, even if it isn’t expressed.
So, if you encounter someone who doesn’t speak English (or whatever) all that well, consider that this is a person who is not just struggling with the inconvenience of trying to get stuff done. Recall that this is a person who may also be experiencing a very profound sense of alienation from other human beings due to the difficulty of reading other people’s intonations and moods, of feeling heard and understood and not judged. This is not (necessarily) an unintelligent or lazy person. Learning a new language is hard and takes a long time (and English is a monster), and this person just needs some signals that you are on their side. It makes a big difference when someone else is willing to laugh at the awkwardness and just bumble along with you and point you in the right direction in a non-condescending way.