The reality of relocating: language barriers and culture shock

Ever wondered what it’s like to relocate? To use another language more than your native language? To experience culture shock and – yes, it’s a thing – even reverse culture shock?

Moving from one country to another is no mean feat and there are lots of things that must be taken into consideration. To give yourself just a flavour of what it’s like to live and work in a new country and culture, take a read of this exclusive interview with our translation project manager, Arianna Esardi. And if you’re planning a trip to Italy anytime soon, get ready to be spontaneous, have answers prepared to fend off direct questions and be sure to take some cash with you!

Ari, what is one thing you wish someone had told you before you first moved to the UK?

So, I first moved into the UK when I was 17 and I was still in high school. Back then, I wish someone had told me was how different the school system was. Because obviously from outside, all your knowledge about the UK is from TV shows or films. When I was 17, British pop culture was really big, you know, One Direction boyband kind of thing… Everyone was completely in love with the idea of the UK and London without understanding what it might be like to live there day in day out.

Moving to the UK was a big change for me, especially as our school systems are so different. The fact you get to choose your subjects was one of the main differences and the concept of dropping a subject was completely new to me. I had friends that started taking, like, four subjects at A-level and then dropped down to only three, which again, for teenage-me, used to 12 subjects in Italy, that was quite a shock. Also, back at home, you are awarded your final grade as an average of your exam results throughout the year and you don’t need to worry about your end of year exams being the be all and end all. Interestingly, although the school year runs from September to June, it’s the year that you’re born (January to January) that determines what school year you’re put in!

Has language ever been a barrier for you in the UK?

When I first moved here, language was definitely a barrier. At the age of 17, I had my English just from what you learn in school; some songs, you know, that kind of typical, very basic English. Actually, the very first thing that happened to me in the UK was that I got on the train from Gatwick to Hastings where I was staying for the year, and it was one of those trains that splits up at a station and only one half was continuing to Hastings… not my half…

They must have announced it, as now I know that that’s how it works, but I didn’t fully understand the speaker, maybe it wasn’t very audible or maybe the fact that my English wasn’t that good is why I didn’t get what was going on. So, I sat there in an empty carriage that was going to stay at the station and I did nothing. Thankfully though, the guard walked down the train to make sure everyone had left. I don’t really remember what he said but I do remember he was extremely nice and he got me off the carriage, walked me through to the right part and even allowed me to sit in first class. He later came back to check on me and told me when to get off the train. The bottom line is that I was completely lost; I was a teenager terrified of going to a new county. And he was, honestly, my saviour in that situation!

Obviously, the language barrier has got smaller as my English has got better with time. I have got to the point where I would say my main language has changed to English as, you know, I work in English and, at home, my partner is British, so we are always speaking English. There are still times where I’m absolutely convinced that a word means something when it doesn’t, though. I mean, even the other night a calque from my Italian crept in; I was talking about anticipating a meeting. Because the word ‘anticipare’ – which is similar to the English ‘anticipate’, actually means to bring forward. I was talking about bringing a meeting forward from 4pm to 3pm but kept going on about anticipating it until I realised, after some funny looks, what was wrong! 

UK photos

Being able to speak two languages is a blessing and a curse! Do you think it’s possible for a person to lose their fluency in their native language the more they learn a new one?

When I was 17, I would translate in my head from Italian into English, but now I find myself having to do it the other way around, having to translate from English to Italian. That’s what happens when you move abroad and when you don’t use your language that much. And that is why when it comes to reading, for example, I do prefer reading in Italian. I’m a big reader and I can read in English, but reading in Italian allows me to sort of tap back into my language and rebuild my vocabulary in my native language. And sure, reading in English allows me to do the same with English, but if I were to drop reading in Italian in favour of reading in English, then I would lose that kind of vocabulary in my native language, because if you don’t use it, you do tend to lose it.

Now, let’s get down to the juicy stuff: what are some of your pet peeves about British people?

One thing that I don’t want to say drives me mad, but let’s say, one thing that I’ve noticed… is I just don’t get the need to have everything planned. Some things are ok, you know, I plan my holidays months in advance. But when it comes to social stuff and seeing your friends, in my opinion, you don’t need that level of planning. When we go back home to Italy, it might be that I get a message to a group chat at 6pm saying, who wants to meet up tonight at 10pm? I might not answer until eight and then say, yeah, I’ll see you in a couple of hours. And that’s all you need. You can also drop by someone’s house unannounced, and perhaps stay for a coffee or just chat for a bit – this depends from person to person of course – but I wouldn’t be like, no, I’m not letting you in unless you send me a letter in the post first…!  

Sounds like you’re definitely more spontaneous than we are in the UK! So, how do people's attitudes and mentalities differ between the two countries?

I’d say the UK is a bit more open in terms of mentality. There’s a bit more conservatism back at home over certain topics, but then again, I guess it just depends on where you are. If you’re In London, you’re going to have a more international and open mindset than if you live in some really small village in the middle of nowhere – generally speaking. And I think it’s the same in Italy. If you’re in Milan, you’re probably going to gain a different mentality to the ones you might find in some sort of, like, tiny little town.


For example, again, back to when I was a teenager, I used to have blue hair. I’ve always had coloured hair, really bright and everything. To have blue hair hadn’t exactly caught on back then and I was one of very few in Italy to have blue hair. I was getting stares – even in Milan! But stares nonetheless, and when I moved here, my mum was concerned I was going to get the same kind of thing. So, because I was going to be in the UK alone and I was not yet eighteen, I dyed it back to a very dark brown and left my much-loved blue hair behind. But when I moved here, I was surprised to find that one of the professors in college, while I was doing my A-levels, had bright pink hair! So yeah, I regret that I dyed it, I really wish I had kept it blue!


And what are some of the main cultural similarities or differences between the UK and Italy in the workplace?

One thing that I’ve noticed is that I can talk about money a little more openly. I won’t ask people how much they earn, but I have no issues discussing my salary. I’m not sure if it’s an Italian thing or a me-thing, but generally speaking we are certainly more direct and can get to the point quicker than most English people!


Another difference is how you write emails. I think we are a lot more formal in our writing, just like how French emails and writing is very structured, and very formal. Whereas, in the UK, it’s not quite a text message, but your emails are a lot more like a conversation and you can use emojis and so on. Every now and then I still need to get my emails checked here in the UK to make sure that they don’t sound too formal just because I don’t want to come across as rude in English to British people. But if I were to write an email like I do in English in Italian, I would definitely come across as rude to the Italian person. There are different pronouns in Italian that you can use for addressing people and you should always address people that you don’t know using the formal address in Italian.

Have you ever experienced culture shock in the UK or reverse culture shock when you go back home?

When I go back to Italy, I experience reverse culture shock for sure. So, credit cards and debit cards. Up until a couple of years ago, they were still not very widely accepted. I think there was a law that was passed maybe six months to a year ago that says shops have to accept them. But up until then, there was no obligation. And actually, banks tend to charge quite a bit extra on any transaction done by a credit or debit card. And that’s why up until the new law came into effect, they weren’t that widely used. You can still see some shops now where they don’t take card or there’s a minimum amount, for example, no card payments under 10 quid. Obviously, in the UK I’m used to being able to pay even 10p with a card or being able to split a bill 6 ways in a restaurant, and so going back home I’m forever having to scramble for cash!

I’m hoping it’s going to change because I do find it a lot more convenient and safer here in the UK. So, if anyone here wants to go on holiday to Italy, be aware, it’s really important! Take some cash. There will still be places that don’t take card at all, like taxi drivers. I mean, now with the law, they sort of have to, but do take some cash with you, as you never know!

And finally, is there any advice you might have for people planning to relocate to the UK?

Check out the UK government webpages. There is a lot of really clear and helpful information. You don’t have to call people, as it will take a long time to get through to anyone on the phone and actually you can find what you need online. Chat to people who have already relocated, if you’re moving with work, definitely get some language and cultural training arranged. And yeah, documents take time. Be prepared to wait but stick at it! Living and working in another country and culture is worth the wait!

If you want to find out how Dialogue can help you with relocating for work or study or you just want to brush up on those language skills before an upcoming business trip, get in touch with our training department today!


Share this post