Learning a new language? Embarrassment is the best teacher

When I started learning French I was immediately fascinated by the language. My enthusiasm was so obvious that my mother decided there was no better present for my 18th birthday than to send me to Paris for a language course. Even though by that time I had only been learning the language for a year, […]

When I started learning French I was immediately fascinated by the language. My enthusiasm was so obvious that my mother decided there was no better present for my 18th birthday than to send me to Paris for a language course. Even though by that time I had only been learning the language for a year, I was sure that I would not have any trouble with communication during my stay. Little did I know!

 

Linguistic challenges started right at the beginning of my trip. After arriving in Paris, the person who was meant to pick me up was nowhere to be seen. I realised that I ended up in the wrong place. I clearly did not correctly understand the name of the station announced by the bus driver as we were approaching it. It seemed like the slow and easy to comprehend recordings I was used to listening to in a classroom environment were nothing like the real-life French! More importantly, it was getting dark and I had no idea where I was in relation to my accommodation. I walked around a bit but I did not manage to find a taxi rank. I started to feel a bit panicky, when a stranger approached me and asked me whether I was lost (at least I understood that…). I nodded and with a massive intellectual effort, replied in French that I was looking for a taxi. Putting the words together in stressful circumstances was nothing like drilling simple dialogues during lessons. Fortunately, I made myself understood and the man indicated that I should follow him. Within few minutes he found me a cab, put my bag in the boot and wished me a nice stay. I was so happy to have bumped into this person and for him helping me out. I wanted to tell him that he was an amazing human being and that I was wishing him all the best. Unfortunately, no one taught me how to say that so I just kept repeating “Merci, merci, merci”. The repetitive “thank you” did not feel like enough to express my overwhelming gratitude but with no appropriate vocabulary for the occasion, it had to be enough.

 

My next major language struggle took place when I was dealing with the language school’s administrator. I tried to express my frustration with the course’s structure being different from what was advertised. I was promised some one-on-one training apart from the group sessions, I was explaining to her in my much less fabulous than imagined French. This well-spoken woman had her reply prepared. This was a misunderstanding that had to do with a third party and the reimbursement for the non-existent classes could be sorted out when I was back in my home country. That left me with three hours of learning per day, as opposed to the six I was hoping (and my mother paid) for. My feelings remained mostly unvocalised but at least I managed to tell her that I was very (très!) angry.

Weeks were passing by and my spoken French got better in many contexts. The more times I bought tickets and asked for directions, the easier these particular exchanges became. I even ended up finally ordering large fries in restaurants, instead of “a giant fry” which I asked for initially. I was also proud to notice that the French stopped switching to English after hearing me speak their language. Still, there was one thing I was entirely unprepared for and those were… informal social interactions. Most students at my language school broke the rules and spoke English to one another in free time. Without further ado, my first proper peer interaction and at the same time, my biggest social embarrassment in Paris happened in a club. A fellow student introduced to me a French guy she met there. He offered me a hand and introduced himself by saying “Matthieu”, to which I replied “Enchantée”. I did not expect the reaction that followed. Matthieu burst into laughter. I went red and after he calmed down (it took him a while…), I asked him what was so entertaining. I thought what I said meant “Pleased to meet you”. He explained that the word I used can have this meaning but it also translates as “delighted” or “enchanted”. In short, young people rarely used it. He told me to just say my name next time in reply or smile. Perhaps embarrassment is the best teacher, as I have never forgotten this lesson. Being overly formal, however, is a minor problem in comparison to being too relaxed. I learnt the hard way that French people are sensitive to the difference between informal “you” (“tu”) and addressing someone as Mr or Mrs (“vous”).

I was put in my place by a family member visiting my host family towards the end of my stay. We were not too dissimilar in age so I thought it was safe to use the informal ”you” with him. I was mistaken as he seemed rather offended by it. After that situation, I developed a habit of using the more formal form with people until they would ask me not to.

 

My sojourn in Paris was certainly very educative. I improved my French skills but more importantly I learnt how significant it was to practice real-life skills in terms of listening and speaking. I also understood that one has to be very context sensitive. My Parisian misunderstandings were mostly funny but I am sure that many careless language learners got into serious trouble by saying something else than what they meant! Languages are very nuanced and it is not easy to reach a point, when one can express themselves appropriately in each situation. Like many foreign language learners, I initially overestimated my skills. It simply is not enough to know the words, one also has to know how and when to use them. It took me years of language instruction to reach a level similar to that of a native speaker. Only then I realised that seemingly identical sentences in two languages are never exactly the same, due to the subtle differences and linguistic intricacies.

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