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Je Ne Understand

I went to Europe last summer for the first time since I studied abroad nine years ago. In those nine years, I lost all foreign language competency. 

This became apparent as soon as I picked up our rental car and began driving on the German autobahn, which essentially is a lawless free-for-all sprinkled here and there with speed limits. 

Unfortunately, I did not crack open a guide book ahead of time or bother to learn simple German phrases and/or traffic signs, which led to me repeatedly shouting “I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S HAPPENING” as I cruised toward Cologne. I’m still waiting for a handful of traffic tickets to trickle in.

Things weren’t much better once we arrived in Alsace, a region of France with adorable Beauty and the Beast-esque towns on the border of Germany. We stayed in a tiny country village that literally was not even on a map; clearly the only visitors around. 

Each morning I struggled to order my coffee and croissants at the local boulangerie, all charades skills further failing me. Lovely French townspeople would greet me with a “bonjour” and I would panic, rattling off a series of nonsense that was mostly in Spanish. One morning I apparently ordered three espressos instead of one. 

Just an idiot abroad.

But I’m not alone in my struggles. When you travel to another country, language barriers are almost inevitable. When you move to another country, even more so. 

In 2014-2015, nearly 1 million international undergraduate and graduate students attended U.S. colleges and universities. At the 2016 NAA Student Housing Conference & Exposition, speaker Carla Cantu, Chief Marketing Strategist for Cantu Consulting & International Services, encouraged attendees to make more of an effort marketing to—and servicing—international students. 

And helping them order pastries. 

Although cultural differences and language barriers can pose challenges, Cantu says one happy international student often leads to 10 or 15 signed leases among their friends due to such strong word-of-mouth. That extra effort is worth it.

When it comes to interacting with residents, Cantu says it comes down to communication. “We may be communicating but that doesn’t mean it’s been understood,” she says.

My caffeine levels that day in Alsace are proof of this.

Among the most common sources of miscommunication, Cantu sites language, nonverbal communication, and attitudes, values and beliefs that we assume to be universally true. 

“Do accept that your assumptions are the assumptions of others,” Cantu says. “Culture lies beneath the surface.”

In the U.S., for example, pets are considered a part of the family. Americans often assume the same is true elsewhere. Yet in many other countries, pets are not seen that way and are left to roam around. If cultural expectations surrounding pets are not discussed, an international student may leave a pet alone in their apartment for the entire weekend, or allow it to freely walk around common areas.

Which explains the chickens at that French Airbnb…

For more, check out Global Insider in the March issue of units Magazine.

Lauren Boston is NAA’s Staff Writer and Manager, Public Relations. Unsurprisingly, she writes a lot—most often for units Magazine and as a weekly blogger for APTly Spoken. She enjoys making people laugh, sharing embarrassing childhood stories and being the (self-proclaimed) Voice of the Apartment Industry. She welcomes feedback, unless it’s negative (in which case, please keep it to yourself).