I Live in a Country Where I Don’t Speak the Language and This Is What I Learnt

A year ago, I decided to jump into a new adventure: I moved to Budapest! I was no stranger to moving: born and raised in Portugal, I had already lived in France and England but Hungary had a particular twist: I don’t speak Hungarian.

While this didn’t scare me — I had been travelling extensively and getting around using just English — it proved to be a very peculiar experience, and one that I am still going through.

I moved here to study — I did a programming bootcamp that I documented here on Medium — and also for one of the main reasons people move abroad: love. I was in a relationship with a Hungarian for most of my first year here and that sure helped easing into the culture and navigating life here. But, one year later, I still don’t speak the language.

I used to consider myself fairly good with languages. After all, I speak Portuguese, English, French, Spanish and can understand a bit of German. But Hungarian is a wilder beast. Sometimes, I believed it’s untameable. Impossible to even start to comprehend.

During the first five months, I was too focused on the bootcamp and on learning Java — learning a programming language was enough, I couldn’t handle another one. But in the past six months, I have been really trying. I use Duolingo, Drops, books, and I finally signed up to classes on a school. I’m making progress but I am incredibly far from being fluent.

Even though I still haven’t properly learnt Hungarian, I did learn a thing or two from this experience:

1. It is possible to live in a country where you don’t speak the language— maybe this is a consequence of the global world we live in and would not have been possible just a couple of decades ago. But the truth is that I completed my studies and I am currently working for a company here and none of that required me to speak the language. I also have been managing my everyday life without much hassle, including things like going to the bank or setting up Internet at home.

2. It is frustrating at times — even though it’s possible to live like this, it can get very frustrating sometimes. For example, when a letter arrives on the post and you don’t understand a thing. Or when you need medication and have to go to several pharmacies until you find someone who speaks English fluently enough.

3. Supermarket trips were incredibly painful at first — this one was really unexpected for me, but during the first month or two, going to the supermarket was a very tiring experience. Many products were different to what I was used to back home and, being vegetarian, I needed to read the labels. The problem was that I didn’t understand a word! And even though many products had labels in several languages, they were all foreign to me, like Czech, Serbian or Estonian. I eventually decided to shop at Lidl and Aldi because I could read the labels a bit better, making use of the German I learnt with Duolingo.

4. A big part of communication is non-verbal — true. There are many theories about this, quoting as much as 93% of all communication to be non-verbal. While gestures and face expressions can certainly help in a trip to the bakery, for example, they won’t perform miracles. I could never have a deep conversation with anybody that way and even holding a basic conversation with my partner’s family — who didn’t speak English — was frustrating and tiring.

5. Most people are nice and will try to help — many people are sympathetic to the fact that you don’t speak the local language and will try to communicate either way. Sometimes, people who have nothing to do with you will jump in to help as translators, for example when they are queuing behind you and realize you are struggling to make yourself understood. But some people can be really unhelpful too — several times, I started conversations in English and if they went a bit further and the person would feel uncomfortable, they would start speaking Hungarian and never revert to English. In these situations, you just need to let it go — it’s their country and their language. No reason to be upset about it, just move on.

6. It’s very important to have someone who can help you — I had my partner and that was super important, as I could count on help if I needed anything more serious. Like that day when I went to the Immigration Office and the lady at the counter didn’t speak English — because, why would they, at the Immigration Office, right? In situations like that, it’s very handy to have someone to call and ask for a translation from.

7. Budapest is one thing, the countryside is another — I live in the capital of the country and that is a major factor in me being able to live here without speaking the language. When I go to the countryside, finding English speakers is a much harder job. This can also be true in other countries — the cities will always be easier places to navigate due to the higher rate of English speakers, but some countries are also much more friendly in this regard than others.

8. Google Translator is helpful, stupid and funny — It sure saved me from many situations and helped me a great deal in navigating my life here. But the translations can also be very off, especially with more complex languages, like Hungarian. The good side is that, sometimes, those translations are some of the funnier things you’ll ever read. Like when I agreed a meeting with a guy I was selling something to and he wrote something that got translated as “I will be in the square with a chicken” (he meant he would be near the chicken food truck), or when my friend tried to translate “Merry Christmas” to Hungarian and Google suggested “F**k me up”!


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