One of the things that often holds us back from practicing a new language is the fear of making a mistake. It’s an obvious wound in self-pride if someone laughs at you, or stares in bewilderment because while trying to ask for directions, and you get the word for “left” confused with the one for “shirt”. However, this pride can unfortunately cause you to stay at home and isolate yourself. If you can just dare to permit yourself to make the mistakes, and risk being laughed at, you’ll learn a lot more than you will at home. OK, watching TV in a foreign language is a great method to learn it, but it doesn’t correct your accent of grammar. In the spirit of trying to encourage you, I’m going to let you in on a few of my own “traumatic” experiences with mistakes in a foreign language. Hopefully you’ll see that, at the very least, you will have tons of funny stories to tell for years to come.
London, England – I studied at the London School of Economics in 1990, and considered myself pretty smart. Since I’m American, and have been speaking this language my whole life, I assumed American and English are the exact same language, so never expected to encounter any language issues when I lived there. I was greatly humbled when my friends and I were lost one evening, trying to find Gloucester Road. We came across a policeman, so I thought he would be a good person to ask.
“Excuse me sir, could you tell me which way we go to get to Gloucester Road?” I asked.
The cop burst into hysterical laughter. It was extra funny, because I assumed all London cops were very, very serious. This one, however, was practically splitting his sides with laughter. I didn’t quite get the joke, till he corrected my pronunciation, “‘Glow-chester’ Road? There ain’t no such place. But if you mean ‘Gloster’ Road, it’s just down and to the right.”
Paris, France. I was in a drugstore and found a man frantically searching the shelves. He couldn’t find what he needed, so he walked up to the pharmacist, and I heard him say, in broken French, “Ah, pour ma femme. Ou est les douches?” I understood that he wanted a feminine product for his wife, but he left the pharmacist scratching her head trying to understand why she would be able to help him find the showers! I jumped in and helped the man get what he needed, and we had a good laugh in the process.
Strasbourg, and Louvieres, France – I have two French host families, and one summer, visited them both, starting in Strasbourg. I’m always eager to pick up new slang, so was delighted when my Strasbourg family taught me the word “tarre”, meaning, as they explained, “silly”, or as I like to joke with good friends, “you’re retarded” as in, “you’re a goofball!” We laughed with delight, and any time I said the word, everyone was very amused. So, off I went to the wedding of one of my host sisters in Normandie. I was asked to get up on a chair and give a speech.
Naturally, I wanted to share just how much I loved everyone there, and make them laugh, so I announced, “Les Francais, vous etes tous tarres, et je vous aime enormement!” I was delighted to tell them I loved their goofiness. Unfortunately, I learned that, as in the US, different regions have different definitions for the same word. In Normandie, calling someone “tarre”, implies that you are the child of a parent who is medically retarded, and therefore, you have mental problems. Highly insulting. Fortunately, only one member of my host family took the offense to heart, and was not too eager to talk to me for a while, but I’ll never forget, or misuse that word again!
Paris, France. When I worked in Paris, one of the Marketing Managers who was working in our New York office, visited our Paris center for a presentation to a group of Americans. The Manager was French, but had an excellent command of the English language. Well, mostly. I was invited to listen to his presentation, and he became very excited about an idea he wanted to emphasize. He wanted to tell underline it’s importance with the phrase, “the belly of the beast”. Instead, out of his mouth came, “…and this idea stemmed from the bowels of the beast.” There was not one dry eye at the table and it was impossible to stop the laughter for at least five minutes. He then had an enraptured audience, hanging attentively on his every word, hoping he’d make another mistake.
Here’s what these experiences taught me:
Laughter is universal. It can actually be a bonding experience to make someone laugh.
Mistakes help you learn. I often remember words because I can think back to one of my many funny stories and the person correcting my grammar or pronunciation. So, the bigger impact your mistake has, the more likely you are to speak better next time!
Friends will forgive you. If you make a really dramatic mistake, and end up saying something insulting, your friends will understand, and forgive you.