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Language alone cannot communicate. Reflections from a year abroad.

After spending one year living abroad in Paris and Barcelona, I’ve learned a fair few things. But one of the main things has to be the influence of English. 


I understand that the world is becoming more and more globalised, and as a consequence of that,

English is being used a lot more frequently as a lingua franca. This is even the case in conversations

where none of the speakers are English. That was the most puzzling thing for me.


I was always under the impression that everyone spoke English in tourist destinations because of the shocking language skills of anglophones. But I was wrong, so very wrong. As much as I hate to admit it, it didn’t once cross my mind that people of all languages use English to communicate when abroad (when they don’t speak the local language). It was a complete revelation when I moved abroad; I can’t believe I’d never noticed this before, or never spared it a thought.


For a millisecond, the idea of everyone speaking the same language to make life easier, did in fact cross my mind. But then I took a step back and realised that yes, language is a means of communication, and that is perhaps its main usage (especially in the brains of non-linguists).


But as a linguist, you learn that language extends so far beyond a method of communicating an idea. Language holds culture, represents history and makes the world a beautiful place. 

But how does language represent culture? A good place to start is by looking at all the untranslatable words in other languages.



Sobremesa - Spanish 


This word (literally meaning ‘on the table’) refers to the long conversation that is had around a dinner table after eating a meal. There’s no word for this in English because…this isn’t too common in our culture, so we’ve never needed a specific word for it. In Spain, eating is a very social activity. People often eat very late in the evening around 9/10pm and sit and chat for up to a few hours afterwards. 


Hygge - Danish


This is a commonly untranslatable word; it represents a very important factor in the Danish way of life. It is loosely translated as ‘a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being. Some may translate it simply as ‘cosy’ but this loses a huge chunk of the meaning.


Dépaysement - French


The literal translation would be ‘un-country-ness’; the closest word we have would be ‘homesickness’, although it’s not the same thing. Dépaysement refers more to the feeling one gets when they leave their comfort zone and/or familiar environment. The biggest difference: it’s not always negative. Sometimes people actively seek this feeling! 


Hopefully now from learning a few untranslatable words, you see how language carries and represents the culture(s) that speak any given language. If we all spoke the same language, we would not have any of these unique and fun nuances. This is also a great reason to learn a language! From the vocabulary, you can learn so much about the way of life and traditions.


Did your year abroad change your perception of English?

  • Yup 💯

  • Not really 🧐

  • It's more complicated ...


Author: Chloe Laird. Chloe is an Olea Ambassador (Team 2.0) and a final-year undergraduate MFL student at the University of Bristol.


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