Expat in a country that speaks the same language as you – Blessing or curse?

The netball game just finished. Expat in a country with same language

Olivia is in tears. Her team lost 10 to 0.

Sandra, her mum, is fuming on the bench.

‘Why is the game so violent, the referee so biased, the girls from the other team so aggressive? The lack of sportive spirit is obvious. Some of those girls had knives in their eyes, tackling the players instead of playing the ball. They’re children, for goodness sake. We’re not at the Olympics!’

The Australian man sitting next to her turns and quietly answers ‘Well, now you need to build a bridge and get over it.’

The words feel like a slap in her face. Sandra’s cheeks redden. How rude!

‘You’re so British’, says her husband grinning, as Sandra recounts the whole story at the dinner table that evening.

Needless to say, her husband’s comment was the second an arrow to her heart that day.

There is a special breed of expats: the ones moving abroad but who don’t need to learn a new language. Australians living in the US, Canadians in the UK, French in Quebec, Spanish in Argentina, Brazilians in Portugal…

At first, you think it’s a blessing.

You don’t have to struggle for months to hold a simple conversation, decipher the sign boards in the streets, spend weeks memorizing endless new vocabulary, make countless grammar exercises, sweat profusely when ordering a loaf of bread at the local bakery, become bleak when the phone rings for a local call, scratch your head when shopping at the supermarket unable to read the composition on the packaging.

But there’s a curse.

You might use the same words but their meanings and/or connotations are totally different depending on the country. And the extent of the differences can be significant.

An English-speaking Canadian friend of mine – a PhD, professor in political science – living in Australia for 5 years still learns a few new words… per week!

Depending on the context, those subtle but essential differences can be frustrating, isolating, shameful, hilarious, irritating or even disturbing.

Let’s have a closer look at how language plays on your nerves.

It’s frustrating

You’re living in a country where you’re supposedly speaking the same language but what you’ve learned to be ‘wrong’ becomes the new ‘normal’.

‘Crap’ says the TV presenter on ABC News (Australian channel) prompting Sandra to jump out of her seat in front of the children

“You’d never say something so rude in the UK. I don’t want you to repeat this.

His pronunciation ‘maron’ of the word maroon is just shocking. It’s written with 2 ‘o’, he ought to say “marOOn’. My goodness, I’m fed up with correcting this journalist every 5 minutes.’

If you’re an adult born and bred in the same culture, you’re used to particular standards, the ’right’ ones. But all of a sudden, you’re surrounded by people — and among them your children’s teachers (!) — whose sense of right is actually WRONG for you.

It’s isolating

You officially speak the same language. Locals don’t know that you don’t know!

They make no effort to explain the vocabulary differences  because they assume you understand or they haven’t the faintest idea that their words could have a different meaning in your culture.

You have a terrible time understanding their sense of humor.

You feel you don’t belong and never will.

You view yourself as incompetent having no excuse to not fit in: you speak the language!

It’s shameful

“Don’t forget your fanny pack” yells Laura (US) from the backyard (in Australia) to Alison her 16 year old daughter going out with friends.

Alison blushes from tip to toe and gets weird looks from her giggling companions.

“Mum, don’t say that!”

Laura looks at her in disbelief, totally oblivious to her daughter’s outrage.

NOTE: A fanny pack (in the US and Canada) is a belt bag that you usually put passport, money and other valuables in when walking around. You keep your hands free and don’t draw the attention of the pickpockets.

The only problem is that the word “fanny” totally changes meaning on the other side of the globe. In Australia, it’s used to designate the female genitals in a less than polished language.

It’s hilarious

Sally reads the note her 5 year-old son just brought back from school.

“For a creative project in the classroom, I’d like for your child to bring two sheets of yellow paper, a set of coloured pencils and a few novelty rubbers.”

Sally can’t help but bursts out laughing.

Novelty rubber? In the US, that’s a condom. In this Australian context, the teacher meant novelty erasers of course.

It’s disturbing

Sandra is proud of her roots. She’s British.

“No worries” answers Sandra spontaneously currently living in Australia but visiting her parents back in the UK for a holiday.

“Oh sorry mum, I meant ‘no problem’ of course” she immediately rectifies.

Her husband jokes “Now, you’ve become a real Aussie!”

You pick up expressions you would never have said before. You’re changing and you don’t recognize yourself any more. What about your identity? Who are you now?

There are equally two ways to look at the above stories: how confronting it can be sometimes to live as an expat or how rich this world is.

And we’d never have known if we’d chosen to stay put!

The tension we experience in navigating between both extremes is our chance to better know ourselves. A blessing or a curse?

Now, over to you. What’s YOUR story?


A special mention to the gorgious ladies of the Hobart expat group who provided those crispy stories. You rock!

Photo credit: 037A4218 via photopin (license) and music from Piano Society



  1. jean-luc says:

    Good point!
    Same language is not same culture… You have got to learn local expressions and behaviors but, honestly, it’s better than starting from scratch!

  2. The beauty of languages…. I will stay positive and look at this post with this spirit! However, I write bilingual children book and I do know all about the different meanings…
    Thank you Angy I loved you Aussie accent!

  3. Carlijn says:

    When living in Flemish part of Belgium as Dutch person I loved the difference in use of language. For us Dutch people Flemish sounds just very cute, and it took a while to understand that even though people would be talking cute, they still should be taken seriously 😉

    Of course sometimes it was confusing and you would get the odd look on people’s faces when you said something that apparently was very funny (some things could actually be quite embarrassing …), but people could hear that I was Dutch anyway through my accent, and it most often served well as an icebreaker and provided a good subject for initial conversation.

    Both our kids were born in Belgium and are therefore speaking a mixture of Dutch and Flemish due to daycare and school, and now that we are living in France I love the daily reminders of our life in Belgium. And as it turns out, a lot of those weird other words the Flemish used actually were a Dutch way of pronouncing French words, so it is helping us now to learn French as well 🙂

    • Hartelijk dank, Carlijn voor uw gedetailleerde bericht. Leuk om van uw ervaring te horen! Lovely to hear about your experience. Great read!

  4. I am so glad to see this situation discussed here. I first thought about this when a Panamanian friend who moved to Argentina when his father was appointed ambassador told me about the difficult situations he got into because of the variations in Spanish language spoken in the two countries – so this is not just an ‘English’ issue. It probably happens in lots of language contexts where to countries share the same language! Nice to see a new theme on ‘bilingualism’ – I always claim to be bilingual – a speaker of both UK and US English!


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