In today’s global world, many people travel to live or study in other countries. Even though some languages, such as English, are widely spoken around the world, there are many cultures where English is not the main language, which makes many travelers, foreign workers and students in English-speaking countries a linguistic minority. As a native Chinese speaker living in an English-speaking country, I can tell that having a different mother tongue than those around you is a unique experience, both challenging and exciting.
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First of all, even if you are fluent in both languages, there is still a possibility of misunderstanding. For instance, before moving to study abroad, international students are rarely taught all the expressions and idioms that frequently appear in native English speech. When taken literally, these expressions create confusion, which can sometimes impair the communication between a native English speaker and a member of a linguistic minority.
Secondly, if you have friends from your country who study or live with you and you speak to them in your native language, some native English speakers will find that extremely rude. Thus, many international students keep speaking English even to those who know their mother tongue so as not to make English speakers feel uncomfortable. This leaves many people from linguistic minorities feeling awkward and exposed due to the lack of privacy that speaking a different language gives; however, most of us adapt to this feature quickly, which allows us to reap the various benefits of a culturally-inclusive community, such as hearing different opinions on certain issues, exchanging cultures and experience, and so on.
The accent also concerns many second language speakers. Some people, such as myself, see it as normal, whereas others try to get rid of it through special accent training. In addition, many people for whom English is a second language find the differences in intonation and word order between the two languages quite challenging. For example, in Mandarin Chinese, pitch and intonation are used to signify the meaning of a word or sentence, unlike in English. Moreover, there are also some significant differences regarding word order. These features do not normally obstruct the communication; however, they make living among people who have a different native language a demanding task, as you have to pay extra attention to such small things.
It is also common for people from a linguistic minority to mix the two languages they speak on a regular basis together when they are nervous or in a rush. Sometimes I use English words in conversation with my parents and family without even registering it. This does not affect our conversation in a negative way, but it is certainly a curious feature that a lot of people find quite entertaining. It is caused primarily by the fact that many students studying in a foreign language begin thinking in that language: sometimes we get so used to speaking English that we forget what a certain word would be in Chinese and use an English alternative instead.
Finally, one of the most exciting features of speaking a different language is that it is a great bonding opportunity. There are a lot of English-speaking people who do not know any other languages, and they are usually very excited to learn some simple words or phrases from a native speaker.
Overall, whereas most people are not conscious of the language they speak or of how they say certain things, people from linguistic minorities are much more aware of the challenges and rewards brought by intercultural communication. Living and studying in a foreign country is an amazing experience on its own, and the linguistic aspect is surely central to it.