One of the challenges of being an expat – and I am sure many of you have experienced it if you are not mother-tongue English – is dealing with a new language. Initially the impact is monumental, then the challenges move towards the humour and the subtlety of English. Sometimes it feels complicated and overwhelming, but in reality there is nothing to worry about. Learning to understand English (and the English) is something that can be genuinely enjoyable. This is the story of a journey in a different language, and the improbable event that makes of English our mother-tongue for photography. This is also a post with my 5 best tips to survive in a country where your language is not the currency for information any longer.
To hell and back
The first weeks of being a Londoner, more than six years ago, were overwhelming. I had always talked a bit of English, but being immersed in the British culture proved to be a different kettle of fish. Because of my job I used to travel around the world a lot and English was the common ground amongst us foreigners, identifiable by speaking slowly and by that “I am not mother-tongue” sense of warning in their voices.
Being an Expat is somewhat different because you meet people who have been speaking that language for all their lives and don’t feel awkward and insecure as you are. It is a challenge to get there, to realise that, for no matter how good you are, you will never be quite as competent as a mother-tongue (excluding extremely rare cases). The good news is that you will eventually grow out of your insecurity. You will start understanding things better and better, you will also start to appreciate the uniquely British sense of humour. It will take time and there might be odd cases in which you will feel a little bit spaced out, but the journey is memorable!
That was actually a question…
One of the moments I often recount about being an expat and fighting with the language happened few months after I came to London. I was out with some colleagues and one of them said something I didn’t catch at all. I politely asked to repeat it, and he did but I did not get it again. I apologised and asked to repeat it once more. Fumble, I simply did not grasp what he was saying, not even a word. In that moment I felt like an idiot. In front of me I had two options: asking for the third time or pretending to understand. Asking for the third time in a row seemed to me too much, so I decided to nod and mumble an agreement. At that point all my colleagues looked at me, and I realised my mistake. Great, I felt that awkwardness every British film depicts, and it was not funny. My colleague smiled, came closer and whispered “Carlo, that was actually a question”
5 tips to survive the locals being an expat
These are my personal tips on how to live your life stress-free when living in a country where the local language is not your one.
- There are times in which asking to repeat just once feels a lot, but if you don’t understand, asking is reasonable. You have to remember that you are not mother-tongue and that speaking in a new language is tiring. If you don’t ask you don’t get
- In my first week at work, I was discussing a F.A.Q. page, but I did not spell the three letters separately and the F word came out. It is ok to speak “funnily”, not to have the right accent or not to get everything right. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t let these things put you down. English are generally patient and nice, so should you with yourself
- When we moved to the UK we started listening to the audiobooks of J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter. Read by Stephen Fry, they are a pleasure to listen to, but more importantly you have to concentrate to understand everything. I promise that by the end of “The Deathly Hallows“, you will be able to understand English much better
- I have always believed that being able to pass the right message was a priority, how to pass it is on a lower level in the scale of importance. Content is King and Presentation is Queen, but if you struggle to move on, keep this in mind: if your message comes across, you are more than halfway there!
- What Expats often forget, is that even if we don’t speak as fluently as mother-tongue people do, we are still proficient in more than one language which is a distinct advantage. Keep Going, because you are doing great!
Our Photography is mother-tongue English
The weird thing about Faby and Carlo is that English was the language we learned the terms when we started our photography path. All the technical details about photography as well as how to pose women were learned in English. They flow naturally through our mouths without the need to think about it. It is incredible that directing a woman in Italian is much more complicated for us than doing it in English.
There will come a time when you will feel at ease with your new language. Then you will create a new one made of your own and the one you speak daily. Welcome to Faby and Carlo’s funny world, Britalian land.