Tips & Tricks

How life abroad goes when you don’t know the language

So here I was, just moved in together with my boyfriend in an apartment in Skopje. The first year of my new life in Skopje and I didn’t had a job. Some people would say they would get so bored or would go crazy because they don’t have work. But I had the time to get used to my new life and start learning the language.

The first few weeks I was cleaning and cleaning… and cleaning. We moved into a furnished apartment, so nothing is new or yours. And the thought of some dirty old fat guy on the toilet seat left a taste of vomit in my mouth. The only thing that I know is that before us, two students lived and before that a single guy. But I really am a little scared of other people their nastiness, so cleaning it was!

The struggle of learning the language
In that first year I followed classes to learn the Macedonian language, and although I had a really good teacher and she was also really strict, this language is not easy for me. There were plenty times I just wanted to throw my books and laptop out of the window.

Overall I did my homework and practiced at home. That moment when you put a post-it on everything to memorize the words, yes I was trying. And then you figure out also Macedonians don’t understand their own grammar. And when I had a question, my boyfriend would simply say: ‘Ask your teacher I honestly can’t explain this.’ Or some would say: ‘Nah Macedonian is easy, we don’t have that much grammar rules’. It is not easy, and you do have a lot of grammar and weird words! So the main rule I had and still use: it is Macedonian logic. Does it make sense? No, mostly it doesn’t that’s the logic of the Macedonian language.

Yaay for the English speakers, or not?
Luckily all my friends here speak English, but some things just can’t be translated. Trust me, most awkward thing ever is someone telling a joke in Macedonian and then someone else is translating it to you in English, after everyone is finished with laughing. And then they stare at you to see if you think it’s that funny as they think it is. And mostly it’s not.

The downside of everyone around me knowing English is that it doesn’t motivate me to start talking more Macedonian. Plus the fact that people ask you: ‘Common say something in Macedonian’. And then laugh and say: ‘Aahh you say it so funny.’ That’s probably one of the most demotivating things for me ever.

Who? me?
Another language thing is when people do think you are Macedonian. So they start talking and talking, and sometimes I can understand what they want to say, so that’s good. Other times I am happy that I can pretend really well that I understood everything they said. And then there are times when I’m just not in the mood to even try to understand or talk, so I say the most common sentence used in every language: I’m sorry, I don’t know.

Those moments when you do talk Macedonian and people look at you like, ‘where is she from?’ and then ask you and you have an actual conversation in Macedonian, those are very proud moments for me. Mostly that’s with people from the supermarket or the taxi drivers, but I will get there someday that I can have an actual conversation.

Language barrier in the relationship
Now I can honestly say I’m pretty ok with English, and I don’t have the famous Dutch accent (steenkolenengels). And so is my boyfriend, he does have that Slavic accent which is kind of cute as well. So we can manage and we always talk English to each other, we learned to talk about everything since we had a long distant relationship. Because the worst thing you could back then, was throwing your phone against the wall, yeah that’s not the solution. So you talk!

For us there is no language barrier, even when talking about emotions or when we need to express ourselves in words there is no problem. I can’t imagine the struggle for those of you in a long distant relationship that can’t express themselves well because of the language barrier.

When you think you know the language
In the Netherlands we have a lot of accents and slangs, someone from the north wont be able to understand someone from the south. Even 20km further the problem can appear you wont be able to understand completely what they say. In Macedonia, it is not much different. People have dialects or pronounce words differently.

Here in Skopje you can find people from every region of the country. I work with people from Ohrid, Kumanovo, Sveti Nikole and Skopje. They all can talk in ‘normal’ Macedonian, but they also can talk in their own dialect. Now for someone who is learning this language for 1,5 year, it is very confusing to hear words be pronounced differently from what you learned. So when you think you can understand it, just check if you can also understand someone from another region.

Overall I believe that when you move to another country, you have to know their culture and habits and respect it. I used to say: you have to know the language. But since I learned that this part can be really difficult, at least try to learn the language. For me it will take a while before I can start talking politics or any kind of subject where you need more knowledge of the language, but I will get there… eventually.

21 thoughts on “How life abroad goes when you don’t know the language

  1. I came across your blog by accident. It’s quite interesting seeing things from other people’s perspective :). I hope you have a great life here.
    If you need help with macedonian don’t hesitate to ask. (language enthusiast here 🙂 )

    1. I Hope you enjoy my blog, it is just the way I feel about Macedonia 🙂
      I do have a good life here! But the language is still an obstacle for me, thank you for offering help!

      1. No problem, anytime 🙂
        It is difficult to learn Macedonian at first since it belongs to an entirely different group of languages than Dutch, but with practice you’ll master it, I’m sure.

        1. Wel I am practicing for two years now and I still get very confused with the language. But my plan is on the long term, give me five years and I will talk fluently Macedonian haha!

  2. Hey Lise, welcome to my country, and greetings from your country 🙂
    I love your blog, very insightful and hart worming to read your blog. As i get the impression you fit well in my country, and i see you enjoy it as much or more then Macedonians them self.

    Greetings from NL
    Alek Polizovski

    1. Hi Aleksandar, thanks for your feedback. Yes sometimes I do get the impression I like it more here than the Macedonians haha!
      Can be nice to meet up some time. Enjoy reading my blog!
      Greetings

  3. I would like to recommend you reading books: having the same book in Macedonian and Dutch language. That is how I partly studied Norwegian, which is in the same group language as yours. I’m teaching my Norwegian boyfriend -Macedonian language and many things doesn’t make sense to him also. Mostly because in the phrases there is a lot of irony and also in the jokes, but it doesn’t sound like so. He also thinks Macedonian jokes are not funny after being translated, partly because it has something to do the way it is said, and the meaning behind it. After some time we realized it was because he has a totally different humor, f.ex. in Norway they don’t have jokes on the money cause people have it, therefore jokes about having or not having money is not a joke to them, it might be also to you as Netherlands has a good living standard.
    A way he is learning is through songs, and the traditional folk songs have hilarious lyrics so it can be fun when you understand what is it about.
    He tries to speak as much as he can, and the grammar is wrong, but then I tell him what is correct and why it is like that, and that usually helps a lot.

    Those are my tips and opinions, I hope it will be helpful! Me and my boyfriend find your blog very interesting, as he has the same views as you for many things.

    1. So great to read that even someone from Norwegian feels the same way about the language as I do!
      Yes the Dutch also have a different humor than the Macedonians… and translating the jokes is still the most awkward thing that can happen to me.
      I also listen to Macedonian songs, they are actually very easy once you get a small Macedonian vocabulary, and it is great way to learn any kind of language.
      I actually am a little ashamed to speak Macedonian, mostly because they laugh here because they think it’s funny the way I talk. But still I am determined to fluently speak Macedonian in a year or 5 haha!
      Thank you so much for your tips and comments, really nice to read and I hope you two will keep enjoying my blog!
      Have a nice day, cheers!

      1. Haha, since you mentioned it, yes the biggest cultural difference was that Macedonians laugh at mistakes. Not to make you feel bad or laugh at you, but to kinda ease the situation that you made mistake, no need to feel embarrassed.

        Pozdrav!

  4. Hi Lise,

    I found your blog through facebook. I think someone shared it. I started from the text that the weird thing macedonians do and I still laugh at my self when I think that all these things are true. It really nice that you have found your love from Macedonia and all I can say is be both happy and enjoy. Keep posting 🙂 Greetings

    1. Hi Risto,
      Thanks for your feedback, I notice many people find it very amusing to read!
      I hope for many more years we will be happy and enjoying life.
      Greetings!

  5. Hi Lise,
    Greetings from USA. My kids ( 15 and 11 years old) really enjoyed your blog, please do not get discouraged in learning the language. Do not take to heart when they tell you “it is funny” trust me when they go home all of them are still thinking of how courageous you are to come and live in Macedonija. My kids are born in USA but we go almost every summer to Macedonia .they can speak Macedonian but there is the accent which is the same for me here in the states-I have an accent and people notice that. My whole family enjoyed reading your blog and we must tell you that you did excellent job. Stay positive.

    1. Hi Suzana,
      Thank you so much for your comment, it really is encouraging me!
      Hope you guys will keep enjoying my blog!
      Wish you all the best 🙂

  6. Your blog is all over social media these days so i had to give it a try and boy oh boy was i surprised … the funniest thing is, you nailed all the things about kafana and drinks 😀
    I hope you have an amazing life here in Macedonia most of us are nice and humble. btw i am moving to Germany in 2 months so it was nice to read through your experiences of living in a country you know close to nothing at all 😀
    – yeah all tips are welcomed.

    1. Hi Martin,
      I’m glad my blog surprised you and I hope it was a little helpful 🙂
      Germany is a great country to live in, and beautiful as well. I have heard that a lot of Macedonians are moving there so I am sure you will find some haha! But if you have any questions, just ask me!
      I wish you all the best.

  7. Hi there, I just came across your blog on FB and enjoyed the read and had a good laugh. Good on you. I was born in Australia from Mazo parents and believe me some of the things you mention have travelled here. And if you can learn English which is such a mish mash of many languages, then you will def get the hang of Macedonian. Best 🙂

    1. Hi Lena, Thank you for your comment! Great that you enjoyed my blog, and I will try my best to learn the language haha 😉
      Pozdrav!

  8. Hi, just came across this blog and it peaked my interest for no other reason than I have been studying Macedonian on and off for the past 15 years :). I speak it quite well but there’s always room for improvement (I visited but never lived in Macedonia). I understand your frustrations because there aren’t many resources for this language. The other issue I figured out is that most teachers don’t know how to guide language students. To summarized how I maximized my time learning the language here are some practical tips. Study everyday 1 hour (listen and read with transcript only interviews where people use the real language not news reports), with goggle look up the words you don’t understand, no flashcards ever, no grammar until you speak fairly well. After the dialogues in the Kramer book go to Радио слободна Европа for dialogues with transcripts in MK. If someone told me this years ago, I would have been fluent in 1 year. I plan on making a YouTube video on learning MK effectively eventually.

    1. Hi Frank,
      Thank you for your tips, I will try to study every day 🙂
      When you upload the videos on youtube in the future, please send me a link!!
      How come you became interested in the Macedonian language?

  9. Hi Lise,

    I find your posts very interesting since I am a Macedonian currently adapting to life abroad 🙂
    It is really challenging, but yet interesting when you change ‘home’ to another country; new language, new people, new habits…
    I really like your attitude that you are trying to adapt. That kind of mindset will help you to easier learn the language and integrate.
    I am going through the same phases as you described. 🙂

    By the way, I don’t think Macedonian is easy to learn to speak it properly. Contrary to what your friends told you, Macedonian language has many grammar rules, but I’m sure you will learn them as time goes by.
    Common native speakers (in any language) are very rarely aware of complexity and grammar rules of their own language, because they speak it from kids without minding grammar. You learn more grammar when you learn a foreign language, than for your own (because you speak your native language well, without knowing to define grammar rules 🙂 ). So I would assume that although everyone around you speaks better Macedonian than you do (you being a foreigner, a them being native speakers 🙂 ), you probably know Macedonian grammar better than 80% of them 🙂

    Good luck with the language and integration,
    Greetings,
    Viktor

    1. Hi Viktor,

      I think if you don’t try to adapt or even try to learn the language or culture, you will never integrate.
      I’m trying and doing my best, for the language I figured out I just need to speak (and not feel ashamed, although thats very hard) instead of focussing on the grammar. Thank you for your comment and good words! Wish you all the best.

      Pozdrav,
      Lise

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