Crossing Mountains: Language Barriers

Crossing Mountains - Language Barrier

Welcome to the second chapter of Crossing Mountains!  I was so humbled and surprised by all the comments and support that people were giving in my first post.  I was so excited to see people participating, giving their insights on how to overcome loneliness.  My goal is to create a community of people who are able to help those who are finding it difficult to handle certain hurdles they face in their new homes.  It’s always a great feeling to know that there are people you can go to when you’re in need and I would love for everyone to find someone they can turn to.

This week, I wanted to keep the topic a little lighter.  I’m bringing up something I encounter for about 90% of my day: the language barrier.  Even if you’re in a country that speaks the same language as you do, there are still differences because of slang and accents.  I only took Japanese for a year and three months during university, about three years ago.  You can probably imagine how much I learned and how much I retained, which is not very much.  I can only make simple sentences and my vocabulary, is probably on the same level as a kindergartener’s.  There are times when I’m too tired or don’t have the motivation to study, once I get home from work.  Most of my studying ends up being done during my breaks at work.  There are times I feel unmotivated to continue studying because I’m not sure if I’m progressing or what I’m learning will ever get to the level I would like it to be at.  I know with that attitude, I’m DEFINITELY not going to get anywhere.  I need to be focus and keep pushing myself, because I am improving and my co-workers are so happy to see me trying to speak their language.

Most of my day consists of attempting to figure out what everyone is saying.  I usually say yes to any question that someone asks me.  I feel like one day that will bite me in the butt, but I won’t know what I’m saying yes to, so I guess that’s a plus…?  Sometimes I wish that I’ll wake up one day and I’ll understand everything that people are saying around me, but unfortunately the world doesn’t work like that.  My first week here, when I was even more clueless than I am right now, I went to a bakery and the cashier started asking me something.  I looked at him with round eyes and a blank stare and slowly shook my head ‘no.’  I then realized later that he was asking if I wanted a stamp card…  Sometimes I feel like people are asking me for the answers to life’s biggest questions, when in reality, they’re only asking me if I want a stamp card.  Note to self:  no one will ever ask you for answers to life’s biggest questions here.

Now let’s talk about your story!  If you have any experiences in overcoming language barriers or have any silly stories you want to share, please do!  Other expats and I would love to hear your stories and receive any advice.

What have you done to overcome a language barrier?  Do you have any tips on how to become a better language learner?  Do you have any funny miscommunication stories to tell?


If you’ve written a post about language barriers, feel free to link it in the comments!  We’ll be more than happy to read posts that will help us combat this obstacle.

Crossing Mountains serves to create a community and discussion between people who have moved from their homes and seek advice on how to cope with everyday and major hurdles they may face.  If you have any suggestions on what topics to discuss, feel free to let me know in the comments or email me.

Previously on Crossing Mountains: Loneliness



  1. Alex Fahey

    I have been SOOOO bad about practicing/ learning Korean. I have Rosetta stone, I have made flashcards, but I am so lazy! I am still trying to adjust to the work schedule! What a great idea to study at work! I am going to try it this week. As for getting around- for the most part it’s not that hard, but I feel so stupid. I feel like I am being rude because I don’t know the language and can’t communicate without miming literally everything. Luckily, I haven’t felt like people were too taken aback by this. In fact, we’ve gotten so much “free” stuff from being foreigners I think (bottle of Coke, chicken, etc.) Good luck with your studies! Thanks for sharing!

    • Mallory

      It’s always really hard for me to sit down and concentrate on studying, but I think studying during my breaks at work is the best for me. I think it motivates me more when I hear Japanese spoken around me, because I always think about how much I want to be able to understand them. For me, I blend in a little more with the people here, so I think people are surprised when I tell them that I don’t understand. Yesterday, someone started talking to me randomly during the festival I was apart of, and I was like, “………” because I had no idea what to say.

      Good luck with your studies too! We got this!

  2. Laura @ Inspiration.Sparks

    Sometimes i wish i could download subtitles into my brain!! haha Most of my co-workers are japanese and i’ve never felt so out of place than when i’m walking with them after closing and they’re talking amongst themselves! Laughing and i’m just clueless as to what’s going on. It sucks but at the same time i love being able to get to know locals, to answer their questions about english words, and even teaching them some spanish words, as well as having them teach me japanese worlds. I want to learn japanese soo bad but at the same time i know how hard it is! I wish i could take some classes at a college, because i know i could never learn on my own. I am too lazy! :P

    • Mallory

      I was telling my friend today that I wished life was like a subtitled drama. The subtitles would just appear below the person and we could all understand each other haha! Too bad life doesn’t work like that. I love when some of my co-workers try to use English with me. My appreciation and happiness is probably what they feel when I try to use Japanese. Even though sometimes (or actually a lot of the times) I make up words when trying to get my point across… I wish I could join a class too because it would definitely help me study more, but I don’t think there are any near where I live. There are conversation partners, so I’ve been debating on whether or not to get one.

  3. Kate Hall

    I am so pleased to have found your blog! I am moving to Japan next year and I’m about to go and stalk all of your posts on your experience so far!
    As for language barriers, I’ve found that an issue in all 4 non-English speaking countries I’ve lived in so far. I think it gets easier the more you get used to it. Now, I find it weird when I visit home and I can understand everyone!

    • Mallory

      Ah! That’s so exciting! I will definitely have to read up on your adventures! Where will you be living here?

      Oh my gosh, you’ve lived in so many countries! That must have been so overwhelming, but exciting at the same time. When I first moved here, it was such a whirlwind experience and I ended up breaking down because of the language barrier. Now that I’ve been here longer, I’m more used to hearing Japanese 90% of the day and I’m slowly learning more words and phrases everyday. I hear the students saying a lot of the same things during class, so things like that have helped me with my learning.

  4. Melanie Fontaine

    I think I’m very lucky as far as language barriers go to live in Norway. I don’t speak Norwegian (yet), but the language has a lot of similarities with German, so I could understand a lot of the signs and other basics from the moment I arrived. I’m taking intense Norwegian classes (apparently, I’m a B1 level now if that says anything to you) and I hope I will have mastered the language by the time I leave for Germany again! :) Aside from that, everyone in Norway speaks pretty good English and is willing to use it as well, which makes communication quite easy.

    Good luck on your studying efforts! I know you can do this! :) If trying to learn Chinese has taught me one thing than it’s that Asian languages are just so much harder than most European languages, but you’re in the best spot to improve your Japanese skills just by living in Japan. :) I know that by the time to leave Japan again, you will have super solid skills! :) Don’t give up!


    • Mallory

      That’s so good that you’re able to get around Norway okay and be able to talk with the locals! Good luck with your goal of mastering the language!

      Thank you so much! :) I will work hard! Having some of my coworkers telling me that I’m good at speaking makes me so happy and more motivated to keep going. It’s kind of crazy my minimal speaking abilities are getting compliments, but I guess that means I can only go up from here.

    • Mallory

      Most of the time people ask me everyday questions (I get a lot about what I like to eat and what I do on the weekends), so it’s definitely a lot easier when you tell yourself that people aren’t trying to have philosophical talks with you. Then you can have something to focus on, when you practice/study.

  5. Erika

    Ah, I love this series so much, Mallory! :) And learning a language — especially the immersion method — can be so difficult. I always try to keep that in mind and even point it out with friends in the US who are so disapproving about the use of Spanish… those are usually people who have never tried to learn another language and REALLY use it… they don’t understand how hard it is to translate the complexity of emotion and sophistication that often comes with adult conversations.

    Now that said, I’m proud of you for pushing and for realizing that you must keep practicing a positive attitude! I definitely let my attitude defeat me when I lived in Austria and it wasn’t until I got home that I had learned so much even when I was defeated; how much more could I have done? I also think it’s important to keep in mind that even when it feels like we’re learning because it’s going so slowly, it really does ADD up. Sometimes we’re too close to it to see, but keep going… one day you’ll see how far you’ve gone and it’ll feel so great! :)

    • Mallory

      I’m so happy that you like it, Erika! Yes, this is also a definite learning experience to become more accepting and understanding of those who are unable to speak English, I’m now that girl that no one can communicate with. People don’t realize how difficult it is to learn another language, especially if you’re not actually studying.

      I will keep in mind that everyday, every little conversation or sentence that I speak will help me in the long run :) I’m finally getting over my fear of making mistakes, because I make them all the time. I make up words or don’t conjugate words properly, but getting over that fear, helps with progressing. I can practice more and speak more to people. I heard that one of my coworkers is learning Korean (I love Korea and I studied Korean for a few months) and I brought it up to her. I know that our conversation won’t go very far, but at least we had some dialogue and now we have something in common :) I’m happy that I brought it up! She even complimented me on my speaking… which is crazy since I don’t really know how to say very much, but it still made me super happy that she complimented me and now I kind of sort of have a friend at work haha!

      • Erika

        This is so great to hear, Mallory! :) Especially about getting more comfortable with making mistakes and making a friend at work!!! That IS progress! And what you’re doing is so difficult, but the effort over time will pay off so much. Plus, the lessons you’re learning about learning a language also extend to other areas in life! If you can get past the discomfort of making mistakes, you can achieve any of your goals in any area! :)

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