Life in the Language Isolation Chamber: When social situations create Lingo Loneliness

I’ve been mulling over writing this post for years. It’s not a post specifically about life in Slovenia, or the Slovene language. Instead, it’s a post for anyone who has spent extended time in a country where the local language is not their own. It’s a post for people who share life with a partner, but not a native tongue. And it’s a post for those who recognise the ‘Lingo Loneliness’ feeling but until now, didn’t know it had a name.

So what is the Language Isolation Chamber?

I have coined the Language Isolation Chamber term (a first I think?) to describe the feeling of social isolation, disconnectedness, awkwardness, exclusion or loneliness, due to being immersed in an environment where you do not understand the vast majority of what’s being said around you.

You might think that any time you visit a country where the native tongue is not your first language, you would immediately enter the LIC. But in my experience, this is not the case. For the most part, in the foreign lands in which I have lived, I have spent most of my time in the Blissful Ignorance Zone (BIZ) rather than the LIC.

There can be a cosy comfort to the BIZ bubble, your train of thought completely uninterrupted by the world around you. When out in public you are oblivious to the conversations in which you are immersed. Like a boat on a lake, the water flows around you. You move through it, you are surrounded by it, but you are not part of it.

The LIC experience only truly occurs during social settings where etiquette demands your attention; at the dinner table, perhaps in an office or at a formal event. And you only truly enter the Language Isolation Chamber when you are:

 a) Not fluent in the local language and

 b) The conversation moves exclusively into the local tongue and

c) You are not in proximity to a native speaker of your own language

My First Taste of The LIC

I had my first taste of the Language Isolation Chamber way back in 2004, when I spent two years living in rural Japan. (If you’re interested in reading more about that experience check out the book I wrote about it: For Fukui’s Sake; Two Years in Rural Japan).

At this time, everything still felt so new to me, that initially, I didn’t have a sense of feeling isolated. I remember sitting at a low table in a tatami-floored room, sipping on sake at one ‘enkai’ (a social event with my co-workers) and just listening to the tangle of high-speed Japanese that was flying over my head. I remember feeling quite content to just let it wash over me, and to enjoy the delightful exoticness of the experience. However, as I spent longer in Japan, I did start to undergo times of loneliness too.

Sometimes, some time could pass, with me having no ‘adult’ conversation at all. Aside from classroom English, and a few pleasantries with my colleagues, I could go a few days without any level of intelligent verbal communication. That was my first realisation of the importance of spending time with people with whom you could speak completely effortlessly.

The Expat Factor

I believe this is one of the reasons that expats bond so rapidly, especially in countries where the local language is not their native tongue. Until you have lived outside of your own language comfort zone, you cannot know how much you begin to miss the simple act of talking effortlessly with people who truly understand you.

You begin to crave connection through natural conversation; conversation that isn’t laboured, or child-like. Conversation that flows and brings humour with it. And when such conversation is in limited supply, you’ll take it anywhere you can get it. Hence expat friendship groups often bring together people who would – in their natural habitat – never be friends, but quickly become close on foreign soil.

Expats quickly bond with other expats when outside of their home turf

It’s now been almost three years that I have lived in Slovenia, making it my single longest stint of time outside of my native UK. I suspect this is one of the reasons why I am now feeling the Language Isolation Chamber more acutely than ever before.

But there are other factors too. The Coronvirus lockdowns of 2020 meant that my opportunities to ‘recharge’ in English-speaking settings were severely curtailed. Normally I would spend some time in the UK, catching up with friends and family, enjoying the simple pleasure of being able to converse without effort.

Likewise, I normally welcome a few visitors to Slovenia, meaning my year is punctuated with opportunities to get my English-speaking fix with good friends and family. For 2020, this was not so. And I have now, more than ever before, come to realise how much I value such times.

Slovenian Coronavirus grafiti – as seen in Maribor

Thirdly, related to the lockdowns, I have spent more time than ever in the close presence of people whose language I do not speak well, or at all. When I moved to Slovenia, I thought I might end up meeting a Slovenian girl. Instead, I met an Austrian girl who lives in Austria. This has further complicated my language situation, as I have been attempting to improve my Slovenian, but now frequently spend time in social situations where there is yet another language that I need to learn from scratch, at the same time.

I must say that I am fortunate that most of the people I spend time with on an extended basis can speak English very well and are kind enough to do so with me. As for my own foreign language abilities, although I have some (see: Struggles with Learning Slovene) a sad reality I’ve become aware of, is that I suspect it takes a very, very long time to become fluent enough in a second language, to truly be free of the Language Isolation Chamber. Though it is of course a spectrum; the greater your linguistic talent, the less trapped in The Chamber you will be.

But when I think back to my relationship with a French woman some years ago, even though my French was at an intermediate level, when sitting at the dinner table en France, trying to keep up with multiple conversations, where slang and unknown cultural references were being bandied around, I quickly switched off and retreated into The Chamber. Such times became a source of conflict between us.

The Awful Awkwardness

The absolute worst part of the chamber is the terrible awkwardness it creates. This is most severe when you’re in a setting such as a meal at the table. Social etiquette dictates that you must be attentive but if the conversation is taking place in a language you don’t well understand, you very quickly switch off and enter your own head. On the outside, you must still appear like you are enjoying yourself. But the reality often is that you are just feeling awkward.

The awkwardness spikes when a joke is cracked and the table erupts in laughter. You have a decision to make: do you laugh along, pretending you got the gist, or do you sit in silence, further highlighting your inability to understand?

If you feign comprehension, you risk being asked if you got the joke and the even greater embarrassment of then admitting that not only did you not understand, but you committed the sin of fake laughing too.

When in Rome

There is an even greater complexity to the situation, and that is that you, as the idiot who can’t fluently speak the local language, don’t want to be responsible for everyone else having to speak your language.

Especially when you are the one who is abroad, and you are the one whose own lack of linguistic ability is the cause of the situation. For most people, speaking a tongue other than their own requires effort. Even for those who have strong grasp of a second language, it requires additional thought. It’s tiring. And you’re never going to be able to articulate those jokes so well and craft those sentences as quickly as you can in your own language.

So why should everyone else be expected to forego the fluidity of speaking their native tongue in their native country, just because you – the idiot abroad – haven’t learned theirs yet?

The Other Side

I have been on the other side of the table too. During my first ‘proper’ job in my early twenties, I worked with some foreign colleagues, some of whom were new to the UK and did not yet speak English particularly well. I remember sometimes during afterwork drinks, feeling slightly guilty for not wanting to sit next to them, because I knew the conversation would be limited to a more basic level and that I might miss out on the rapid-fire banter occurring amongst my English-speaking colleagues. This must be exactly how my Slovene or Austrian companions feel, when they get the short straw and have to sit by me now.

A common prelude to the Language Isolation Chamber (LIC) is that at the start of the evening, everyone kindly converses in your native tongue. But as alcohol consumption goes up, people break out of the second-language group to speak their own, eventually leaving you outside of the conversation and inside The Chamber.

An irony of this situation is that the greater the social exuberance of the gathering, you more isolated you feel. The fact that people are chatting and laughing away right next to you, only serves to increase the feeling of you being outside of the group. You are excluded from all peripheral conversations so miss context and background infomation. There is no malice or bad intention in this. It’s simply the natural preference to speak one’s own language. But at such times, I miss the ease of being able to understand what’s going on around me. I miss being able to listen. I miss being able to contribute and dip in and out of talk at will.

At such times, I’d sometimes rather be alone than feel so awkward. At such times, I’d like to be permitted to ‘check out’ of the situation in a socially acceptable way. But of course, pulling out your phone or grabbing a book would translate to your hosts as:

“Hey! Forgo your own conversations and talk to me. In my own language.”

This would of course be rude. So instead you must grin awkwardly and bear it.

I have found myself not wanting to spend too many hours in such environments due to the fear of finding myself in The Chamber. A few hours being immersed in partial incomprehension is fine – but as the hours pass, your novelty wears off, the dynamic often changes and the likelihood of entering the LIC increases.

I suspect anyone who’s in an ‘international’ couple will have spent a stint in the Language Isolation Chamber at some point (unless you are fluent in each other’s language, in which case – congratulations – you can avoid it).

I am fully aware that the only way to avoid the LIC is to continue to learn the languages of the countries I spend most time in. But I’m also aware of the reality that it takes a long time, and the likelihood is that the LIC will always be part of my life to some extent – as long as I live outside of my native country.

Self-inflicted

The social exclusion caused by the Language Isolation Chamber is self-inflicted. I chose to live in a country other than my own, and it’s my own lack of linguistic fluency that is the source of the problem. There are many pros to living in foreign lands, and I recommend everyone should spend at least one year living outside of their homeland. It really does give you a lust for life because everything is new, and every day an adventure into the unknown.

The LIC isn’t fun. But it’s a price worth paying for scenery like this

But as the number of years I spend outside of my Motherland increases, the honeymoon phase diminishes. I increasingly understand there are challenges to being a longterm fish out of water. They are however not insurmountable, and I hope that by working on my lingo skills, I’ll reduce the amount of time I end up in the Language Isolation Chamber.

Until then, the LIC is just part of the rough that comes with the smooth of venturing beyond your borders for a life less ordinary.

4 thoughts on “Life in the Language Isolation Chamber: When social situations create Lingo Loneliness

  1. Thanks for writing. Reading this increased my empathy for my Persian-tongued partner who speaks pretty excellent English (which I’m now reminded I often take for granted). She sometimes struggles with English humour etc. Ironically, being an antisocial grinch I tend to enter the LIC at English social events where the contrived small talk can seem soul emptying. Conversely, I’ve enjoyed some nice evenings in Lj with a dear friend Karina, who’s kind and multilingual enough to accommodate my deficiency. Moving’s a work-in-progress after a hiša hiccup last year. Cheers for the inspiring blog and visual reminders of what I’m very much missing. Srečno, Nick.

  2. I think it depends on people you interact with. Last time I was in Korea, I was with my friend and two more Korean people who spoke only English even with each other, even after alcohol consumption for the whole evening:)
    If you feel uncomfortable, you have to notify people about it 😉 And educate them that it is impolite to speak the language that not everybody understands. 🤣
    It requires a creative mind to flip such situation to your advantage.
    It is interesting thoughts and I like a newly coined expression:)

  3. Good post, short-straw boy!

    It’s interesting that you still feel this so acutely in Slovenia, given the discouraging responses you had from natives about your intention to learn Slovene; clearly the ubiquity of English is less than they think.

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