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Navigating a New Language

If you have ever travelled extensively or lived in a country where you don’t speak the language well, you are undoubtedly familiar with the feelings that go with the inability to communicate effectively – anticipation, frustration, self-doubt – the list goes on.

My funniest language story happened shortly after my husband and I moved to French-speaking Switzerland with only a smattering of French between us. A few months after we arrived, we decided to head over to the Bourgogne region of France for wine tasting and to try our first three Michelin-starred restaurant. By the time we left for the trip, I was in no way conversational; however, I was becoming quite proud of my ‘restaurant’ French. So, we got through the niceties, perused the menu, ordered and settled in for the duration. Then the waiter brought the amuse bouche (wiki definition - ‘something served both to prepare the guest for the meal and to offer a glimpse into the chef's approach to the art of cuisine’). I’m sure he gave a beautiful description of what we were about to eat, although truth be told I probably understood only a third of what he said. Naturally I didn’t bother asking for a translation of bit that I didn’t understand (I’m good at this, right?). Instead, I popped the whole thing right into my mouth. Nightmare – I’m pretty sure what the waiter also said was, ‘whatever you do, don’t eat the block of salt on which the amuse bouche is sitting.’ Yep, the rest of my dinner was had through puckered lips and slightly dull taste-buds.

Once I got over the embarrassment at my mistake, I had to ask myself what can be learned from my experience aside from the obvious – I needed to learn more French! In thinking about this, a couple of things jumped out at me. I tend to act very differently outside of my comfort zone. Had I been at a restaurant in an English-speaking country, I would have listened more carefully and asked questions about what I didn’t understand. Yet, in a country where I don’t speak the language, I somehow feel the need to fit in and to pretend to know what I’m doing, even when I don’t. Also, I often feel guilty living in someone else’s country and not speaking their language better – something to do with not trying hard enough. All of this can lead to a sense of embarrassment and frustration, resulting in bad behaviour and/or bluffing it with often unhappy results.

This begets the question – what can we do to make life easier around the topic of language? I think the first thing to do is to take ego and expectations out of the equation. I know that when I first moved to Switzerland, I expected to be conversational by the end of my first year based on my past experience. Thus, I was disappointed in myself when this didn’t happen. Instead, I should have been forgiving of myself regardless of the progress I did or didn’t make. New languages are hard to learn, and nobody expects us to be conversational in a short period of time so why should we expect it of ourselves?

Secondly, be curious. Part of learning a new language is sometimes not knowing what you are going to get as not everything can be translated via Google. For example, you might not always be happily surprised by what you order (e.g. kidneys!) but if you look at every situation with a sense of adventure, you will always be amused by the outcome. Thirdly, most people appreciate when you make an effort, even if they don’t always understand what you are saying. A warm smile and relaxed demeanour goes a long way when you are trying to communicate with someone in a foreign language. Lastly, I try to remind myself that my main goal in speaking another language is, simply put, to communicate. I have a great love of language, thus I want to speak every one perfectly. However, I have been studying English, my native language, for more than 50 years and I am still learning new things. So, no matter how long I study a new one, it is highly unlikely I will ever be as comfortable speaking it as in my first language.

In the end, I think the key message is to cut loose and have some fun. Get out, give it a go whenever possible, and don’t worry about making mistakes. Speaking a new language will be infinitely more rewarding if you do!


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