Say What?! Living With Bilingual Roommates

6:00PM in apartment 205 is a lively time. My three roommates and I come together in the kitchen around dinner time to eat and chat. We play music. Someone draws a picture on our whiteboard. A spoon is used as a prop. We laugh, we sympathize, we talk about last week’s trip to Osaka. We’re a bunch of college girls, so naturally the conversation tends to circle around stressful classes and how much we miss our parents’ cooking. Sounds normal, right? Here’s the catch: none of us speak the same language.

Between the four of us we know seven languages, and there is no common language between all of us. I can speak English to my French-Canadian roommate, but what about my Japanese and Chinese roommates? No matter what, at least one person is left out of the loop. Not to mention our friends and international neighbors that add four MORE languages into the mix.

bilingual roommates - language

Our message board is written in Japanese but our chore chart is in English. Between the 4 of us we own 9 bilingual dictionaries, ranging from German to Korean (and one German-Korean). Each of these is scattered around the house, always within arm’s reach. After class we can all dip into the international snack bin (a godsend after four consecutive hours of Japanese language courses) and complain about strict professors, reckless cyclists, and ever-present campus crushes.

Our language overlap looks like a pretty cool art project on paper, but it makes living together pretty difficult in real life.

A few mere hours after moving in we realized that Google translate was no longer a viable option for communication. A lot of our conversations take place in Japanese, but most the time it is a huge mixture of something we like to call Japanglish. Konglish (Korean-English), Hanhongo (Korean-Japanese), French, and Mandarin are always invited to the dinner table. I love my roommates. Our conversations take twice as long as usual, but we always want to take the extra time to understand each other. Beyond spoken language, body language is more important than ever. Though a little silly, charades can be one of the best ways to get your point across.

I have lived with roommates for the past three years, but none of them have been quite as unique as this wacky mish-mash of an apartment. Back at home (with an American roommate) it’s easy to communicate. You have relatively similar cultures, customs/behaviors, and a shared language. You can be lazy.

Share House 205 roommate-dinners are on a next level of bonding.

We make an event of it, navigating each topic with a casual kind of stress that every almost-but-not-quite-multilingual person can understand. You have to really engage, really listen, and put an effort into understanding. You can’t space out during the conversation or else you’ll miss what’s happening entirely. What’s your sing? How is your internship going? More importantly I need to make sure that I’m not putting salt in my cereal and sugar on my eggs (it has happened).

At first I was worried about moving in with three international roommates. I wanted to be comfortable. Being outside of my comfort zone and learning how to communicate has been one of the best things to ever happen to me. I love every single one of my roommates and have learned so much from them. I now know that after a long day the only thing you need is to sit back, relax, and play a game of charades.

Knowing the universal scream for cockroach is especially helpful.

bilingual roommates - cockroach

“Cockroach! Cafard! ゴキブリ! 蟑螂!”

Images: Unsplash (1), giphy (1)

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Alivia Hancock is from Wisconsin and a third year student at Appalachian State University, where she is studying Global Studies, concentrating in globalization and sustainable development. Her second major is Japanese with a minor in applied linguistics. After graduating she hopes to enter a field in international or cross-cultural education. Currently pursuing her love for language at Okayama University in Japan, Alivia spends her free time practicing photography, creative writing, and adventurous eating. Follow her blog for stories about finding your second (or third) home. Check out her Instagram for extra stories on local cuisine, botanical gardens, and vlog updates.

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