On a smushy mind

Another lazy sunday

Have you ever lived in a foreign country? Have you ever had to use a foreign language on a regular basis?

I am sure many of you have, it’s not a very unusual thing anymore these days. Lots of people travel, work abroad, fall in love with a foreigner (ahem).

In school, I’ve always dreamed of one day being able to speak another language fluently, effortlessly. It seemed like a big accomplishment (I envy everyone who gets the chance to grow up bilingual!)
And  here I am, having lived in the US for many years now and considering myself (pretty) fluent in the English language.

However, I still have days where my brain is completely “useless”. I don’t know if native speakers can understand this, but functioning (on a fairly high level) in a foreign language on a daily basis can be pretty exhausting.

The first few weeks (or even months) in the US, I would basically break into a sweat every time I had to make a phone call or have a longer conversation with someone. I think I mentioned before that when I met J, he kept repeating everything because he thought I didn’t understand him. Well, my comprehension was pretty good, but my conversational skills were not quite up to scratch.
These days, I am far beyond the point where I have to translate everything back and forth between the two languages in my mind and I pretty much think in English all day long. It’s pretty weird, because sometimes I honestly can’t tell you if I thought a thought in German or English.
Most days it’s totally fine to live in this German-English blur in my head, something that I’ve gotten used to overtime. It feels absolutely normal to live my day to day life in a foreign language. It has become so much of a routine that I don’t even give it a second thought. On those days, I even have a hard time even imagining the possibility of completely switching my life back into German one day.

Then there are days though when I feel utterly exhausted, where my brain is just “smushy” and all I want to do is blurt out every little thing that comes to my mind in German, because this is what my brain was trained to do for the so many years of my life, because that’s what still feels the most normal, and because I can!


Do YOU know what I mean?

  1. Hubby has told me of how exhausting it was for him. Living 11 years in Germany and constantly translating in his head until he thought he would go mad! Then he wanted to just go home and be quiet in his mind.
    Uschi tells me there are times when she gets tired in her head. I do understand.
    I also think this is why I never got a handle on another language. Speaking English alone, exhausts me! ;o)

  2. YES, I know what you mean! Also, I’ll try to one up you on this ;) … Try living in a country where you don’t know the native language (Dutch) and you communicate in a third language (English) and still partially speak and write in your actual native language (German). :P I’ve been back in Germany for 3 months now but am still so confused and surprised sometimes that peole at restaurants or at the supermarket speak German and I don’t have to hope they understand my English. ;) … I still wish I could speak English, though. My brain works faster in English for some reason.

  3. All I know about learning another language is my Spanish classes in college. It’s so difficult to learn a new language (and all the idiosyncrasies!) and to be able to communicate well in it. I think you communicate SO well and I would have never have guessed English wasn’t your first language, had I not known your back story.

  4. I actually have no idea, I’m not bilingual, but I totally admire people who are! I used to work with a friend who was over on an Italian exchange, and there were days where she’d just start speaking Italian, because English made her brain ‘mush’, so I don’t think its an uncommon thing. Good on you, though. I think having the ability to speak two languages is amazing :)

  5. I grew up speaking both French and English – I took half of my classes in school in French and half in English and spoke a bit of both at home (my dad spoke only English but my mom spoke both!). I was so used to going back and forth between both languages, sometimes I’d answer someone who asked me a question in English in French – and it would take me a minute to realize why they were looking at me so strangely! Now that my world is essentially English speaking – I’ve found that I’ve lost a lot of my French vocabulary. I can still carry on a conversation but it’s not so easy to go back and forth anymore!

  6. I can’t even imagine how draining that must be! I have often wondered what language people think in their head when they’re bilingual. Such a weird concept!

  7. I’m (often) proud that I’m able to live my day to day life in a foreign language. But there are still these days…… I just recently got over the my phone phobia ;)

  8. i know EXACTLY how you feel. i get frustrated at C a lot for not understanding more german. luckily i get to speak german everywhere except at home so it’s not as “bad” for me as it is for you. i do know the feeling of not knowing what language i just thought/dreamt/talked in because it comes so naturally.

    the other day i was watching law & order when C came home from work. i was about half way into the episode and he just sat down to watch the rest with me. after a few minutes he said “it kinda sucks that this is in german” (b/c it was on a channel that’s usually switched to english but somehow that particular show was in german) and i hadn’t even noticed it was! my brain sometimes can’t differentiate any more and i was sure i was watching something in english. hehe.

  9. PS: you know where you get to speak lots and lots of german? on my couch. just sayin’ :)

  10. I concur with everything you said. :)

    Most of the time people cannot tell where I am actually from (or rather they cannot tell that English is not my native language) because I feel completely comfortable talking in English — on other days, I seem to mess up the pronunciation of (even easy) words or I completely butcher sentence structures I should be familiar with. It mostly depends on who I talk to and what situation I am in though.

  11. I never really thought about how difficult this must be for you! I think that you are an excellent writer, which obviously means you’ve got mad language skills. I definitely give you a lot of credit for living in a foreign country and being forced to learn and speak the language pretty abruptly. It’s the best way to learn, but I’m sure it’s incredibly frustrating at times.

  12. I feel pretty comfortable in English. More so than German. And I can switch back and forth fairly easily….brain feels normal.

  13. Yes, I know exactly what you mean. My first language is English and I live in Greece.

    While I do consider myself bilingual, English is the language I think in and dream in and I’m much more comfortable in. (I once had a dream in Greece and when I woke up I was all: Woah, weird!)

    But sometimes, especially when I’ve been speaking a lot of English, and I have to speak Greek, my brain just pauses. I can’t remember anything!

    But the worst is when I can’t think of a word in either language! Does that ever happen to you?

  14. I couldn’t agree more with you. Having one of those smushy mind days. I’ve been speaking english and Swedish at work on a daily basis plus occasionally German with friends. It wasn’t a problem and I felt completely comfortable. But now add trying to bring up a bilingual child and thus consequently speaking German to hime while conversing in Swedish and English with other moms and dads… It’s exhausting. I’m all smushed up at the end of every day!

  15. You write so well that it usually slips my mind it’s your 2nd languauge. I remember when I was in French immersion that it was “easier” when I could think in the language I was speaking, because translating constantly just made everything into a jumbled mess.

  16. I lived in South Africa for a year and I am in my opinion by no means fluent inEnglish.
    I would have never thought that I would read books in English one day or watch movies in English just because I want to. And: understand everything.
    I was really bad at English in school. I hated it.
    Now I love it and use every opportunity I can get to talk and practice.
    The first weeks in SA have been quite bad. I was afraid to speak. But the. It just came. And after a while you start taking your notes at work in English and you recognize during talking to other Germans that you can’t remember words in German and just throw in a English word into a German sentence.

  17. Growing up in Montreal, being billingual is basically part of my package deal- French/English. Except I find it VERY difficult. I mean, is it possible to be completely and entirely billingual? My brain think is English even though I am fluent in French and graduated with high honors in French programs… Except I constantly stumble on my words in real life because I translate in my head from English. It’s such a strange thing, really. That being said, I love having more than one language in my repertoire and I hope to add another one or two in the next few years. Great post! :)

  18. I totally agree with everything! It always depends on ones mood and in which situation you are as well as who you are talking to. With me growing up in the States because of my dad’s job, English is like German to me…but I have those mushy days where I screw up the easiest phrases…haha!

  19. It has got to be pretty cool talking in different languages in your head. I’d create different personalities and have conversations.

  20. I know what you mean!

    I often discuss the “which language do you think in” with my other friends who speak more than one language, and we all find it really difficult to come up with an answer! I guess for me it’s mainly English these days, but if I think about my family in Germany, for example, my thoughts slip back into German…

    I’m normally OK speaking English (I feel quite at home in the language, maybe even more so than in my native German), but there are some English words that I can never remember. For example, “socket”. It just won’t stay in my head!

  21. It’s been a while since I lived abroad but I know exactly how you feel. :)

  22. I know how you feel, I remember the feeling from the time I spend in the US as an Au Pair. I was so glad I had german friends back then (other Au Pairs) so I was able to at least speak my native language with someone once a day.

    About two years ago I met another mother at my daughters kindergarten, she is now my best friend. She is from Cameroon but lived in France and the US before moving to Germany because of her husbands job. She tried to learn German but it is very hard for her so our converstaions are in English because it is the only language we both speak. If we spend an afternoon together with the kids it is always a mush of languages because she speaks french with her kids and I speak german with mine and we speak english mixed with german and french words because sometimes we explain thigs and don’t know the english word or it is a “typical german/french” word that can’t be translated. I sometimes feel really tired after spending time with her…but it is also a lot of fun! She raises her kids bilingual french at home, german in the kindergarten/school and her oldest just said she wants to learn english because we are friends with an american mom (married to a German) here whose kids are raised english/german…a crazy mix, but I love it! I want my kids to learn english early because they will definitely need it when the grow up.

  23. Oh do I know what you mean… I feel I have more in common with other expats (regardless of their nationality), than I do with people of my own ethnicity who have lived in this country all their lives… and some people don’t really get that. It’s the language, the culture, the customs, everything, and it takes a daily effort to think, speak and just be immersed in another country, day in and day out.

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