A Love Letter To Language
Learning to speak different languages helped Nina Hobson express, and be, herself.
By Nina Hobson published July 6, 2021 - last reviewed on July 6, 2021
The glass towers of the European Parliament glistened in the morning light. I swiped my ID card and strode into the office. At age 24, I had my dream job, or so I thought. My role as an assistant to a high-ranking official was everything I could have hoped for, but every morning I was filled with dread. When I accepted the offer, I thought I’d be working on important matters such as international human rights. In reality, I was an overworked, undervalued receptionist, dealing with petty infighting among a privileged elite.
By nature, I am a happy extrovert, but I am also deeply sensitive. I thrive in nurturing environments of equality and compassion. In the parliament, I felt suffocated by my boss’s macho confidence. It was dog eat dog, and I was dinner.
In Brussels, my work life was in English, and my social life was in French, with the occasional snippet of Spanish, Flemish, and German. Despite my best efforts, at work I wasn’t myself. Soon I was living two parallel lives—melancholic fake me at work, and happy real me with my friends.
I set about creating a life away from work. I took refuge in an Arabic for beginners evening class. I left the confines of political one-upmanship and reveled in a club where all were welcome. I made friends with an Italian mother reentering academia after having kids, a young Belgian woman who had fallen in love with a Moroccan man and wanted to surprise him with some knowledge of his mother tongue, and an immigrant looking to reconnect with his Algerian roots.
Making friends from all walks of life and learning about new cultures and languages was enlightening. I grew up in a small town in rural Britain. It was my French teacher who first exposed me, at age 8, to the concept of foreign culture. One day at my elementary school, she set up breakfast, or as she called it, le petit déj. With her elbows perched on the table, she sipped her café au lait from a bowl. “In French it is not rude to say, ‘Give me a chocolate pastry,’ as in ‘Donne-moi un pain au chocolat,’” she explained. The previous day I had been told off for eating with my elbows on the very same table, yet here I was learning that it could be très chic to drink from a bowl. People didn’t just say things in a different way, they had unique and beautiful ways of doing things, too. French felt wonderfully topsy-turvy.
When I asked my teacher about the gender of a noun, the declension of a verb, or word order, she’d tell me to say the possible phrases out loud and ask which sounded right. “Et voilà!” (There you go!) she’d cry, when I corrected myself. Learning French taught me to listen to my inner instinct.
At 13, I was introduced to German, which didn’t click at first. Languages felt like computer games—level one German was tough to crack, but after persevering I found the key and jumped a few levels to the secret treasure room. German is beautiful, but only advanced learners tend to realize this. Through German, I found that some things in life are worth persevering for.
Before moving to Belgium for the parliament job, I had applied to volunteer in a Palestinian refugee camp, but due to security threats the program was postponed. Eventually, I heeded the lessons I had learned from French and decided to trust my intuition: I quit my job with the European Parliament. It was time to go with my gut and start anew.
I reapplied to the volunteer program, and after several training events I set off for Lebanon. Living among the Palestinian community was an unforgettable privilege that realigned my perspectives. The issues that had kept me awake previously now felt so trivial.
From Lebanon I moved to Syria, where I studied Arabic in a conservative mosque. Religion lay at the heart of the Arabic that I learned, even corridor chitchat. When I inquired after someone’s health the usual reply would be, “Alhamdulillah” (praise be to Allah), and when anything good happened I’d hear a chorus of “subhanallah” (glory to Allah). I read phrases from the Qur’an, using tissue paper to turn the pages out of respect (the Qur’an is believed to be the literal word of God). I didn’t always understand what I was saying, yet I knew the words were special. I am not a Muslim. I cannot claim to understand the intricacies of Islam, yet I felt a sense of reverence when I heard the recitations. Just as I associate French with freedom, I connect Arabic to a sense of spirituality that I hadn’t known existed within me.
After Syria, I relocated to Angola, where I set about learning Portuguese. Alongside Portuguese there were many Bantu languages—a family of hundreds of African languages, each with its own cultural identity. I asked a colleague to teach me a few phrases in Kimbundu, a language widely spoken in the capital of Luanda. I only grasped a few words, but I benefited from an education of another sort. I learned how Kimbundu had been suppressed by colonial forces as a means of diminishing local culture—and just how important it is today in terms of self-identity. Learning Kimbundu was my first taste of linguistic humble pie. I’d like to think I’m more aware of my learning gaps and English language privilege now.
The scope of languages can feel daunting, but also liberating. Learning languages is like roaming around a house with thin walls—when you grasp the basics of one language, you can make out the murmur of conversation next door, and you become curious to explore. As well as the tidbits of Kimbundu, I enjoyed tastes of Hindi, Italian, Mandarin, and Dutch.
Through these languages I gained access to vast new word banks. My feelings were validated when I came across a term that captured their essence. For example, I love the French term se dépayser, a verb that describes moving for a change of scene, disconnecting, and getting out of one’s comfort zone. Fernweh in German is the longing for being away. It is the marriage of Fern (far) and Weh (pain). Literally it is “far pain” or “far sickness,” as opposed to Heimweh (homesickness, a longing for home). We do not have Fernweh in English, yet many of us grappled with describing this feeling during the pandemic.
As a non-native speaker I often fail to grasp subtleties and deeper meanings. While this can be limiting, my childlike ignorance also makes me free-spirited.
I am me; my personality does not change depending on the words I speak. Yet, languages act like filters, exaggerating or downplaying different sides of my character. I become more direct or carefree depending on the language I am speaking.
My friends tell me the same. We feel more direct in German, yet we can’t pinpoint why. Maybe my learning route had something to do with it; my German teacher trained me to think before speaking. She taught me how to weave my patches of thoughts together with transitions such as therefore, moreover, and on the other hand. Native German speakers sprinkle their speech with fillers—noises like äm, replies like naja… (well…) and stopgaps such as halt (just) and eigentlich (actually). However, I tend to resort to silence in German, while I’ll say “umm” in English.
For me, French is the opposite. I embrace the prolonged slurs (euh), the made-up-as-I-go-not-sure-what-I’ll-feel-next type of phrases. French has a treasure trove of fillers—tu vois (generally meaning “you see,” but as a filler “you know”) en fait (translating as “in fact,” but as a filler “actually”) quoi (meaning “what,” but as a filler “you know”) and enfin (signifying “finally,” but as a filler “well” or “anyway”). With the support of these fillers, I speak as I go along. I feel free.
When I later moved to Chile, most of my friends were fluent Spanish speakers. While I quickly progressed in the language, I still felt self-conscious. I felt as if people weren’t seeing the real me. At times, the frustration would eat me up. I wanted to shout, “I’m not shy or stupid, I just don’t know the word!” Yet this is all part of the language learning experience.
Speaking in a foreign tongue slows me down. While it’s annoying to grasp a joke long past the punchline, the slower pace encourages me to be more observant. In English, I might prattle on, whereas in another language I’ll take notice of body language and other people in the room. I speak better in English, but I listen better in a foreign language.
For me, learning a language is not about memorizing a dictionary; it’s a way of building self-confidence, self-awareness, and community.
I’m currently based in the U.K., but soon I’ll be moving to Spanish-speaking Uruguay. I’m glad, because there’s always a part of me that feels happy, fulfilled, and brave when I’m conversing in a foreign tongue.
I have no regrets that I left my career in the European Parliament. It ultimately pushed me toward my love of language. Now, as I pack my bags for my tenth move to another country, I know that the adventure will only continue.
Nina Hobson is the creator of The Expater, a lifestyle blog for women abroad.