The reality of studying in another language and away from home
Based on the testimonies of real students studying all over the world in different languages, to give a voice to their struggles and efforts.
“The only thing that doesn’t change is change itself. Adapting is always happening. Even if you were in your own country, it’s a process that would happen. It’s just that right now it’s happening in another way. It doesn’t make me feel bad, in fact, it makes me feel good.” – Selin
“I believe there is strength in diversity. If everyone is exactly the same, then there is no beauty in life, because there is no such thing as being special” – Kaadir
“The number of mistakes you make when you speak or you write doesn’t define how smart you are” – Mieke
“I would like to have a higher position in the future based on hard work, regardless of if they are a native speaker or not” – Kaadir
“The word foreigner bothers me the most because us Venezuelans are spread all over the world and we are just recognized for practically encroaching different countries.”
One of the first chapters of the Bible (Genesis 11:1-9) begins with an explanation of how speaking different languages is an obstacle to reach goals.
“The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel[c]—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”
The Tower of Babel was meant to be a tower so high that, according to the story, it would reach the doors of heaven. When the people decided to build it, everyone on Earth spoke the same language and used the same words. When God noticed what humans were trying to do he made them each speak in a different language to confuse them, an obstacle they could not overcome and made them give up and they all went their separate ways.
The word communication comes from the Latin “to share”. We usually share our emotions, ideas and most importantly, our knowledge. To learn something communication is key and the comprehension of the message is vital for us to save all this information in our brains. But what happens when you try to learn this information in a language other than your own? What does it really feel like to study in another language? Before I answer those questions, I’ll sum up a bit of history for you to understand fully.
The fact is that the origin of speech is so old that is difficult to track and explain because of the lack of evidence. Many scientists say that it began with the necessities of women to communicate with their new-borns and take care of them. Others link it to the sound humans used during hunting trips to inform others they needed help to catch their prey. Yet it is quite remarkable that no other species keeps creating more complex ways of communication as they move forward in time.
Languages appear to be inheritably changing. Have you ever heard your parents say a word that you didn’t recognize or that you said ‘mom, no one talks like that anymore!’? That’s exactly the concept. New generations keep adding new words and sounds to the language.
Even though the language is so different in many parts of the world it represents a common purpose to those who speak the same and it creates a bond that could represent a barrier to those trying to enter this ‘language world’ without dominating it perfectly.
English The Imperial Language
Haven’t we all heard our English teacher at least once say ‘You’ll thank me later when you are working’ or ‘English is the most important language in the world’? But where did they get this idea? It all began with the British empire, yet it was the rise of American power that made English a world-wide celebrity.
As the years went on the popularity of scientific journals, schools and the American higher education kept rising and remains one of the most important countries in the world for science. Where more than 95% of the worldwide publications are in English. What’s the problem? The dominance of English in the academic world creates a high educational burden where high fluency of English is expected. Let’s put this into simpler words, shall we?
Take for example 2 little kids, they both want to be scientists in the medical sector. One of them is born in Japan, the other one in Canada. None of them are born in the U.S yet one of them is a native speaker of the English language. The Japanese kid spends years trying to perfect its English while the Canadian is just learning more about science. Who has the advantage here?
This is of course not the first time there is just one language for a specific topic like English is for scientific magazines. Before, languages like Greek, Persian and even French where the leading language for very specific areas, and in their path, ate smaller languages. That is one of the reasons why many linguists predict that of the 7000 existing languages, 3000 would be extinct within the next century. Let’s take a specific example: Western and Central Europe. Their sciences were conducted in Latin. That means that between around the years 1200’s and 1750’s everybody who was interested or working on science would be able to at least read in Latin. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it made it easier to communicate between different languages yet if you didn’t know Latin no one would ever listen to you.
You may ask yourself, why don’t we all choose one language? It’s a culture and identity thing, that’s what many of my interviewees told me. And it can indeed go wrong. Let me tell you the story of a small place called Sri Lanka, it may ring a bell because of the Sri Lanka War aka the bloodiest example of trying to change a language. The people from Sri Lanka were colonized by the Dutch, Portuguese and British yet they coexisted in peace for around 200 years until the British gave it up in 1948. Then the linguistic war between the Sinalis and Tamil people began when in 1956 most Sinalies tried to impose their language through the government as the only language of the country. That was seen as a form of apartheid and protests became violent and eventually lead to a 26 year-long civil war with thousands of casualties. Ultimately both languages were accepted as official and both are taught to children at school. So, imposing a universal language on the world could possibly lead to serious clashes and even world war.
But why the hell do all these stories matter? Maybe languages are a hobby to you. Maybe you haven’t been impacted by it yet, but turns out it can change your life either in a positive or a negative way and it does that for many people around the world. Especially young people.
7.000 ways of saying graduation
Many young people leave their home at around 18 to head up to college or university. The thing is that a big percentage of them don’t do it in their main language. The reasons vary from student to student, some were eager to leave their home and look for a brighter future elsewhere, others dreamed about leaving their town their whole life and many others were forced because of war, political situations, poverty or any other form of danger. Turns out that there are a lot of students in this position and their situation is not often taken into account. Although they do all the effort, maybe their choice wasn’t what they expected and the consequences of it may follow them for life. Studying abroad has proven to bring them both joy and sadness but what they all agree on ‘it has been a life-changing experience’.
Meet Yosuf Özogul, a Turkish student who came to Belgium to learn Dutch with a dream. Currently, he is at his second level of Dutch. His study career began in Turkey where he tasted two years of what it would be like to be a shipping engineer. He didn’t find it to be his perfect match, so he decided to pack his bags and do what he always wanted: study abroad and learn 10 (yes, 10) new languages. But what was his calling? He always considered architecture because of the good salary but his hobbies were always around writing and that’s how he found himself in literature. Language didn’t represent a barrier but an advantage, even while studying.
He feels even though he should be proficient in Dutch after his course, the native Dutch speakers have an advantage over him, even when his major is French and English literature. He loves it here but when he doesn’t find people, in Belgium or at home, to connect with that affects him emotionally and study-wise. When he came to Belgium he thought that it would be just about learning the language but turns out leaving home and studying after the course was not so simple.
Tuition also represents a problem when you must leave your country and finding a job has proven to be very difficult when you are a foreigner.
Still, his life here represents a brighter future and he wouldn’t change the world as it is.
Yosuf left home seeking his true calling and wanting to fulfill one of his dreams, to speak many languages. And so did Alessandra, she left home because all she ever wanted was to be a doctor. She couldn’t do it in her country and she decided to leave. Although leaving brought a lot of sorrow and difficulties, she bumped into an unexpected joy on her journey, love.
Meet Alessandra a 21-year-old Venezuelan whose dream is to be a doctor. “My country of residence is Venezuela, but for almost two years, until this year it was Italy. I speak English, Spanish, Italian and basic German”. Yes, she went for two years to Italy to try to get into school there and study in Italian, sadly she had to go back.
“After I graduated high school I took the tests for medicine and surgery in Venezuela. I got in but there were problems going on in the country and there was no specific date on which I could start so I packed my bags and decided to go to Italy to try to study there. Since I still hadn’t received my acceptance letter in Italy and what I was studying wasn´t really what I wanted, when I got the call from Venezuela saying that I was about to start here I came back” .
She is one of the many young people who because of the Venezuelan crisis had to leave and went to the first country they felt related to and had a language advantage. Having an Italian family and knowledge of Italian she took the first plane she could find. Although many Venezuelans leave because they don’t have any other choice, she thought she did and still believes she would have done it otherwise.
“It delays a little bit the time chart but it gave me love and friendship, and it made me reconnect with distant relatives. It also gave me experiences that in many ways helped me build my character. Living in Italy gave me experiences that will look great in my curriculum and will help me succeed in my main path that is medicine”.
Even though many would call this experience difficult because you have to leave home and your loved ones, she thinks that coming home was the most difficult part of her journey.
“It is very hard to pack a bag and simply leave your life. It means you will start to see a different place every time you wake up, different than what you are used to. You won’t have your family around, your closest friends either. You have to learn to spend time alone and to get to know new people on your own. In many ways my journey made me grow. I learned about myself. I was really able to understand that there isn´t a challenge too big, that I can do anything I put my whole mind, heart and soul into.
What normally no one talks about is coming back. How difficult it is to simply have to tell your mom where you are going all the time, having to compromise in all kinds of things because of the situation of the country. You have to learn to cohabit with your family again. Not many know how difficult it is to have tasted freedom and safety and have to leave it. Coming back to this cage, where I have everything I need but only while I am inside the walls of my house. Having to see once again the face of poverty, desperation and danger that one can sadly find in the streets of my beloved Venezuela.
Don´t get me wrong I am not suffering, but I live my life with conditions. Every time I want to go out everybody says: Don´t wear that, don´t go there, don´t tell just everyone where you live, don´t drive alone at night; not only because they care but because of how dangerous it is”.
Alessandra got to go back to her country. Even when Venezuela meant putting herself in great danger and leaving her newly found love, she had to take the risk for herself and for her dreamed career. Sadly that’s not always the case. Many of the students in this and other countries in crisis don’t see another way out and have to leave.
Meet Juan an International Business student at the University of Tampa, and about to graduate. He left his country for the political situations and the restrictions that came with it. He studied in both English and Spanish his whole life so he was able to study in the U.S with a higher English proficiency than many. The cultural shock wasn’t a big shock either thanks to the growing Latin community in Florida and his parents living 5 hours away. What impacted his life the most was the fact that his lifelong dream, receiving and managing his dad’s business one day, maybe no longer possible.
For Juan, language represented an issue in the work field not study-wise but many students are held back from the work field because language represents a bigger barrier in their studies.
Meet Selin a young girl from Turkey who has been living in Antwerp already for four years. She currently studies product design at the University of Antwerp in Dutch. She also speaks Turkish and English fluently. “Because I had an international diploma I could come to study here (Belgium), but before that, I had to prove that I spoke Dutch and had a B2 level diploma”. Getting this diploma for her was fun because she loves languages but that didn’t make it any easier.
“Sometimes it was hard because I had to do it. Sometimes even though I didn’t want to do it anymore or wanted to take a break I couldn’t. I had to have that diploma to go on with my studies so that was sometimes very challenging. It was very frustrating because my future depended on it. Then I didn’t understand it fully, but the challenge was even bigger. Now that I’m studying in Dutch I know that I’m not only required to just know Dutch but to be able to express myself in Dutch, to learn and explain what I know in the exams perfectly in Dutch. Sometimes I know things, that I’m not able to explain, and it’s frustrating to not be able to say something on an exam that if it was in English it wouldn’t be a problem”.
Studying abroad was her decision, she describes herself as a very international person. She wanted to leave and see the world, meeting different people on her way. The fact that a part of her family lives here also made it very easy to choose Antwerp. Yet family isn’t always enough. If you come from a country where you lived your whole life, you had a lot of friends, you knew the food and every street, changing that could be really hard.
“The first thing you are confronted with when you go to another country is their culture. Here in Belgium the food, the weather and the people were a little cold, in general, to what I was used to. I was a little bit lonely the first year, I didn’t have many friends and meeting people here was very hard because of how the people are”.
The fact that you feel isolated always makes it very difficult to feel at home. Not having your family or friends or even the food you are used to could have an effect on you as a person but also on your student life. Selin learned after all these years where she can find herself feeling at home.
” I’ve started to seek home not in places but in people. I finally feel home because I feel like I belong. My mom is here, my brother is here that is what matters the most. The more places I go, the more people I know, it’s all new but good new”.
Home is a very strong word, not only to Selin. The dictionaries offer a very professional definition. According to Google, home is “the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household”. But to many “home” has a very sentimental value, especially if you never thought you would combine it with the word “leaving”. Manuela had to and didn’t find it at first the best option, but she knew she had no other choice.
Meet Manuela, a 20-year-old Venezuelan studying in Spain. She studies pedagogy, a career she started back home but couldn’t finish. “I started to study at the university in Venezuela to be a preschool teacher, as I couldn’t get my credits validated I started studying Pedagogy here in Spain. Actually, it wasn’t a decision I made by myself, I was practically forced by my parents and the current situation my country is facing. I really didn’t have a choice. My whole family took a decision and I didn’t want to stay alone in Venezuela, but then I started thinking and realizing it was the right thing to do. My country offered me zero options for my future and the lifestyle was simply precarious”. Even though she wasn’t confronted by a language barrier she had to study all over again and what she saw as a dream wasn’t entirely coming true, she was going to be a teacher but not in Venezuela.
“Back in school I was really clear about me studying at a university to be a preschool teacher, I imagined myself ending up my career in Venezuela but it didn’t go that way.”
Luckily she did start this journey with her family by her side. She still gets to see her mom and dad every day and see maybe other family members she hadn’t seen in a long time. Still, the people back home took a space in her heart that isn’t easy to fill.
“I wouldn’t describe my experience as difficult because I came here with my family, which was a huge support for me but I will say it’s a lot of hard work and mentalization. It’s just not only starting again but also that you know nobody, that you have no friends and it’s a different culture where you feel the need to blend in to be happy. The hardest part for me is missing my people back home.”
You might ask yourself if feeling home at first is really that important, more even than the language itself. Mieke, a teacher who teaches Dutch as a foreign language, thinks it affects you more than anything and may even lead you to give up. She has been working with foreigners about 18 years.
“I am really convinced that the way that the students feel plays a big roll in this play. If you don’t feel good then you can’t do anything. That’s why at the beginning of each course I try to encourage my students to go out of the classroom and do things that you like to do as well. I give you the example of one of my former students. She was an African girl and she went through all of her language exams to be able to study at the university. After 3 or 4 months studying she said I’m done, I’m going back, I can’t do this anymore. I’m dying of loneliness. And it sounds terrible but it is the reality, it does happen”.
It sounds terrible but I think nobody who has studied in another language can deny it. But losing your enthusiasm to study doesn’t always happen when you try to learn a language. This is just how the learning curve works.
“Every student always begins with a lot of enthusiasm. When time passes by that motivation starts to vanish and when it’s no longer about learning but perfectionating it, the process gets slower and slower. In the beginning, you see the process moving forward because you came from nothing and now you can speak but when the process is slower you may get a bit frustrated. It is the same in sports or music, for example”.
Still, language requires more effort than what you do in class, especially if you want to study an university major with it.
“You need to make a switch to that new language. Your surroundings have to be entirely in that language for you to learn it fully. If you are studying Dutch you need to watch tv, read and do activities that involve the Dutch language to make your progress faster. Classroom learning will be always artificial. We talk and learn about things that you experience outside of the classroom and if you don’t combine it with activities outside it will never fully click”.
You may think that after all these efforts coming to enroll in a university the directors or teachers would value that piece of paper as if it was a piece of gold. Yet in most of the cases, this is not how it goes. You may even get rejected because your language proficiency is not good enough or if you do get it, teachers would find it not enough.
“What teachers here, and I’m sure in many other countries don’t understand is that foreign students bring another sort of effort and view to the table. The number of mistakes you make doesn’t define how smart you are. They need to try to understand them and have patience with them. Don’t stop and stare only at their mistakes. I read and see mistakes all day, and I understand that it’s not perfect but is that so important? Or besides those mistakes do they bring something extra? “
Many native speakers do not understand it and have no empathy for the effort being made by students coming from abroad but that is not always the case. How does a native speaker really see foreigners then? How do they feel about them learning their language and coming to their country and work field? Kaadir, a 21-year-old American student, has no problem with it.
“If I have a higher position than another person, I would like that to be based on hard work, not on him/her being a native speaker or not. I am excited to see more and more people learning multiple languages, especially ones I know. In today’s world, globalization makes our planet very connected. People are moving all over the world and as a result, are being introduced to new cultures. With new cultures, comes access to new languages. I am very supportive of people learning about other cultures and picking up new languages. To see people learn my language means a lot to me because it means that my culture interests them.”
Kaadir is currently studying Political Science and International Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in Charlotte, North Carolina. Unlike most of the American students, he is also fluent in Urdu and French. Kaadir is also currently learning Spanish at the University. Quite useful for such an international career.
“Knowing more than one language has its advantages and disadvantages. The obvious advantage would be being able to communicate with more people across the world than I would if I only spoke one language. The one disadvantage would come with switching between these languages. Sometimes all the words get mixed in my head and I’ll use one word from French (for example) when I’m speaking Spanish”.
The switch between languages is a recurrent problem that students studying in another language encounter. Especially for those who still live in an environment in which their native language is used as the main way of communication. Still, Kaadir wouldn’t like a world with only one language.
“I would keep it the way it is now, with multiple languages. I believe there is strength in diversity. If everyone is exactly the same, then there is no beauty in life, because there is no such thing as being special”
Although studying in another language is a challenge, going away from home to study could also be hard. It is indeed also very hard for native speakers, especially when they are moving to another state even if it is in the same country, like Kaadir. Being in another state may also feel like being away from home.
“College, at first, took some time to get adjusted to. The academic life wasn’t the biggest problem for me. While the work was more than high school and classes were sometimes harder, I found college to be far more manageable than high school. My grades were pretty good my first year of college. The biggest adjustment was being away from home on my own. It took some time to get used to all the aspects of living on your own.”
As you have read along this longread there are two things that affect students the most: the amount of effort it means to study in another language and being away from home meaning family, traditions, friends and maybe even the weather. All that brought us finally here, the moment when I turned the microphone to one of the last cases I know and the best example that covers all of those aspects previously mentioned yet, one of the hardest to write about: mine.
It all began a month before I turned 18. My grandmother had passed away that year and she left me and my family money to spend Christmas with my aunt in Belgium. The situation in my country was getting worse with each day that went by. We were happy to leave for a while. We had fun, something we didn’t do anymore because of the economic situation. Being there the idea of coming to study in Belgium came up once or twice and I even visited the university. Yet, I never thought I would actually do it. I mean studying abroad sounded nice but in Dutch, a language I had never heard before that trip? Never.
A few months passed, I turned 18 and I was in senior year. The protests in the streets were getting more and more dangerous and students were being killed. So, without getting into details, my parents decided for me that I had to leave. Because if I succeeded then they would come with me too, that meant I had not only my future but theirs in my hands. I had a year. 10 months to study Dutch and be able to pass one of the most difficult exams I have ever done in my life.
Those 10 months were filled with ups and downs, late nights crying, panic attacks, Christmas and birthdays shared through skype and loads and loads of studying. I didn’t go out, I didn’t have many friends either, it was all about studying. Gladly I had my aunt and uncle there so I didn’t have to be completely alone but you should understand that being away from home, traditions, friends, and family gives you a certain feeling of loneliness and nostalgia that is almost impossible to get rid of. After that year, I passed my exams and I was ready for university or at least that’s what the certificate said. I went from only saying “Hello my name is Valeria” to being able to read and understand academical texts, I was very impressed. But under that impression, there was still a lot of pressure and the echo of my mind asking “what if…”.
At first, they didn’t accept my certificates. I had an interview with the director before they believed I was able to speak Dutch and my acceptance came with a “studying journalism is at your own risk, I hope you understand that”. Yet all I could hear from what it seemed a warning was “or you do it, or your family is staying there in a country full of criminality, danger, and famine”. So, I did it. I enrolled with 10 months of knowing the language to study a language based career.
After that first year, I was no longer a kid. I had evolved into a fully grown machine, that sometimes took much more in than what it could handle. My brain had to do three times the effort that each Belgian student did if they did so. I had the same amount of job they had but it still seemed to weight much more for me than it did for them, and at the beginning, my mind didn’t understand why. I had to learn French because it was also requested and I had never heard a word of it in my life. I had to learn about economy and psychology in Dutch and be able to write about it in an exam. I didn’t even understand numbers in Spanish and trust me I tried. I interviewed and phoned people in French when I hardly even dared to call to Domino’s for a delivery back at home. Even though I probably earned those grey hairs and eye bags, I had evolved into what I would call a true journalist.
I am now in my third and last year proud to say that I’m still standing. I want you to know that even though all I have listed as experiences since I turned 18 may not be the best stories you’ve ever heard and it all has been hard work, I can now say that there is no stopping me. Not because I think I am the best or because my ego is huge, but because what I believed was going to be the biggest barrier of my life is about to be left behind hopefully in just months.
Dutch began as a heavy luggage I was carrying and became a word that people love to read in my resume. I have grown not only personally but professionally. I got to know myself and learned all about my goals in life and how to reach them. But more importantly the difference between what I want and what people want from me. I now appreciate my family more than anything and I also know who my real friends are. I learned how “home” is supposed to feel like and that identity, nationality and your country are not something you only find there but something that you carry with you in your heart no matter where you are or what you’re are doing. I grew as a writer and that has presented me opportunities that I could never be ungrateful for.
So yes, maybe sometimes I regret it and want to leave it all behind and go back. Maybe sometimes I love it so much I would hate myself for not keep on trying. And I have said more than anyone in the whole world “I would love it more than anything if the whole world spoke English”, but I wouldn’t because I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for my Spanish, English, Dutch, French and Italian. I’m happy to say I am a Latina and Castellano (Spanish from Latin America) is like music to my ears. If the world only spoke English then I wouldn’t have the privilege to say:
“Mi cultura es bonita, mi familia es perfecta y los Venezolanos somos los más panas”
“La mia cultura è bella, la mia famiglia è perfetta e noi venezolani siamo i più amichevoli”
“Ma culture est belle, ma famille est parfaite et nous les Vénézuéliens sommes les plus sympa”
“Mijn cultuur is mooi, mijn familie is perfect en wij Venezolanen zijn de meest vriendelijke mensen”
“My culture is beautiful; my family is perfect and we Venezuelans are the friendliest”