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How to minimize language shock

You have probably come across the term "culture shock". But have you heard of "language shock"? In this blog, I will explain what language shock is, why and when it happens, and – most importantly – what you can do to reduce and overcome it.

What is language shock?

Have you ever felt insecure, embarrassed, or stressed when you had to put your foreign language skills to the test in real life? Maybe on a trip abroad or even at home, when you interacted with a native speaker of that language? If yes, then you have experienced language shock.

Language shock describes the insecurity, embarrassment, stress, and even anxiety we feel when we have to produce or understand a foreign language, especially when we have to speak without having a chance to rehearse first. Most people who have learned a foreign language have suffered some form of language shock before.

Language shock happens when we switch language environments. We move from our familiar environment, where we and the people around us speak our native language, to an unfamiliar environment, where we need to use a foreign language to communicate with the people around us and get things done.

Language shock at home

You don’t have to travel abroad to experience minor forms of language shock. Below are two likely scenarios of language shock that can happen at home.

The Foreign Language Classroom

It is quite common for learners of a foreign language to experience language shock in the classroom. This is especially the case when the language instructor is a native speaker of the foreign language and/or when the instructor has a strict “foreign-language-only policy”. Students are not allowed to use their native tongue. They have to use the foreign language at all times.

Many language learners get anxious and stressed when the instructor calls on them and they have to say something in the foreign language. That is especially true, when they are asked to speak off-the-cuff, without any time to prepare and rehearse.

The classroom, for the duration of the language class, turns into an unfamiliar linguistic environment. The learners cannot just use their native tongue. There is pressure to use the foreign language. This can create the stress and anxiety associated with language shock.

Encounters with Foreign Language Speakers

Other situations possibly causing language shock within one’s home country are social or work gatherings that are attended by speakers of another language or take place in a foreign language.

Imagine the following: You have been learning Italian for a little while and some of your colleagues know about it. During a work-related event, someone introduces you to a visitor from Italy. The introduction might go something like this:

Your colleague (to you): May I introduce you to Stefano? Stefano is from Milan.

You: Hi Stefano, nice to meet you.

Your colleague: Hey, don’t you speak Italian? You and Stefano can chat in Italian!

Stefano seems delighted, turns to you, and starts speaking Italian.

Depending on your skill level, you may welcome to opportunity to practice your Italian. But there is a good chance you’ll be a bit flustered and even stressed by Tom’s revelation. You may be struggling to find the right words to respond. Maybe, you didn’t even understand what Stefano said to you. If that is the case, you are experiencing language shock.

Language shock abroad

When we talk about language shock, though, we frequently refer to the more intense experience we have when traveling or moving to a country where another language is spoken. The pressure is on: you need to speak the foreign language to study or work, go grocery shopping, take public transportation, go to the doctor’s, meet people, … in short, to live your life.

You try to apply the skills you learned in language class, but the words won’t come. In addition, you have trouble understanding the locals, who seem to speak really fast, don’t sound like your language teacher at all, and use words you have not come across in your language class. But it’s not just the language – there are other things you have a hard time pinpointing. You feel incompetent and it’s frustrating.

People who may experience more severe and lasting forms of language shock include students on study abroad, professionals on business trips, or expats and their families on foreign assignments. Language shock can make the first days, weeks, and even months away from home quite a challenge.

Linguistic aspects of language shock

Different languages have different structures and elements. Most don’t just simply translate one-to-one. As a result, simply replacing the words in our native tongue with words in the foreign language does not usually yield comprehensible results. That is why learning a foreign language can be so hard.

For example, in German, every noun has a grammatical gender. Even inanimate objects are either masculine, feminine, or neuter. Based on their gender, nouns take one of three definite articles (in the singular): "der", "die", or "das". A table is masculine, so it gets the article “der”. A lamp is feminine, so it uses the article “die”. And bread is neuter and therefore accompanied by “das”. English speakers use only one definite article, namely “the”. To an English speaker, German articles are perplexing and make little sense - and they are hard to remember.

Different structures, grammar rules, vocabulary, etc. can cause language shock. They are challenging to master and create confusion, insecurity, and stress. Especially in more demanding environments, such as college or work, people are afraid of making mistakes and coming across as incompetent.

Cultural aspects of language shock

So, is language shock just a matter of skill level? Well, while skill level plays a role and advanced skills greatly reduce the chances of experiencing severe language shock, there is another aspect to consider: the close link between language and culture.

The relationship between language and culture is a complex one, but the two cannot be separated. Language is an element of culture. Culture influences the content of language – the concepts and processes we describe – and it influences how we use it. What we do and say in certain situations is influenced by our culture. In that sense, language expresses culture. It brings deeper lying values and attitudes to the surface.

In each culture, people have their own ways of expressing feelings and sharing thoughts. To some extent, different cultures overlap and there are similarities. Generally, though, there are quite a few differences in how people from different backgrounds express themselves and communicate. These differences can cause language shock.

How culture causes language shock

Here are a few examples of how cultural differences can trigger language shock:

Different levels of formality: To someone from a formal culture, it may come as a shock to be called “hon” (short for honey) by a store assistant or “friends” by the waiter in a restaurant. The questions “How can I help you, hon?” or “What can I get you, friends?” are not uncommon in the US, but may seem very strange to someone from a culture where such levels of informality are not customary. People from more formal cultures may not know how to react and respond.

Directness and indirectness: To someone from a culture where feedback is given indirectly, a blunt “You are wrong!” in front of co-workers can be extremely embarrassing and offensive. It can destroy the harmony of the moment, even when that was not the speaker's intention. The problem here is not a linguistic one, but one that is caused by different communication styles.

Unknown cultural concepts and customs: If you are new to a culture you may not be familiar with certain cultural concepts and customs, such as a popular sport. The unfamiliarity means that you have a hard time participating in conversation about these topics. This, in turn, may make you feel excluded.

These are just a few examples of how culture can pose a communication hurdle and lead to language shock.

Language shock is brought about by having to perform in the foreign-language environment and in an unfamiliar cultural setting. Language shock is, therefore, an element of culture shock.

How can you reduce and overcome language shock?

Since language-related performance is an important element in overall success, there is a lot at stake. So, what can you do to reduce language shock and to overcome it quickly?

Just like culture shock, language shock tends to weaken over time as people adjust to their new linguistic and cultural environment. But you can actively take steps to prepare and reduce the problem.

  • Go wider: Develop socio-linguistic skills – soft skills – along with your language skills. Go beyond vocabulary and grammar. Learn what to say in certain situations and how to say it.

  • Get support: Work with a cultural mentor or coach who is deeply familiar with your (future) host culture, its common practices, and its predominant communication style.

  • Go deeper: Gain cultural insights into the new environment. Don’t just look at folklore and customs. Go below the surface to learn about values and attitudes: it helps to understand the reasons behind the behavior.

  • Try it out: Practice in various situations and repeat newly learned things often so they become automated.

  • Know that you're not alone! It's perfectly normal to experience some level of language shock in an unfamiliar environment.

Learning the vocabulary and grammar of a language is important. It is, however, not enough. Enrich your language skills with cultural and cross-cultural skills so you can truly communicate and be effective.

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