With every language you try to learn, you are opening up common ground with potentially millions of new people. That’s a great thing. But when you have to live your life in that language, you are also opening up a world of uncertainty and struggle. Those foreign words that represent thousands of years of a unique culture can be your enemies as well as your friends.
These are just some of the challenges that come up every day when you are trying to make your way in a foreign language. Next time you speak to a faltering non-native speaker, be kind. They are on a socially painful journey marked by some, if not all of the following trials and tribulations.
- The Pained Look. Known to all language learners. Unless you have perfect command of the language and the words flow error-free (there are a lucky few who get to this level), you will regularly come across the pained look when you try to express yourself. The look appears when you are struggling to get to the end of what you want to say, or when you make a mistake, or just because your accent is grating on the listener’s sensitive ear. It’s a little bit crushing every time.
- The Quality Dive. You have reached a level of proficiency that is good enough to get you through almost any situation without drawing attention to yourself or sparking the pained look. You start to feel comfortable, maybe even a tiny bit proud. Then comes a quality dive. Without any warning, you enter a new situation and your language ability suddenly crumbles. It could be small talk at the playground or handing over your car to a mechanic. You will either be unable to find the key words to say whatever banality you reach for, or you will destroy a sentence with mistakes like hand grenades. Once the unravelling starts, it won’t stop until you exit the situation. Crushed again.
- You’re Hilarious. This comes when you mix up words and say something completely out of place. These slapstick language moments cause great merriment – to others. Like when I wanted to say insecure but said the word uninsured (unversichert versus verunsichert). Funnier than you’d think.
- The Ceiling. Language learning goes in phases. There is the early fun phase where the words are like pieces of Lego and you are the child and you can’t believe you can build sentences. Everything is fresh and fun. This is followed by the hard grind years, where you have to knuckle down and learn difficult things like case endings and verb conjugations and build up your vocabulary to the point of being able to manage whatever life throws at you. Eventually this pays off and you get to a shaky level of fluency, which can sometimes masquerade as real fluency. This I call the ‘look Mum no hands’ phase. From here you think you’ll get to real fluency one day until suddenly, with a blow to the head, you hit the ceiling. You have exhausted your learning ability. Even if you live another fifty years in this country you will never get any better. A chain of mistakes has infected your speech like a virus never to be dislodged. This is where you will stay, a big step short of perfection and comfort, deprived of the ability to be witty or clever forever.
- The Nerves. Because of your imperfect mastery of the language, nerves can hit unexpectedly at any time. This often happens when you need to make a phone call and can’t fall back on the support of facial expression and gestures. A task that you would do without the slightest hesitation in your own language – making a dental appointment, ordering curtains – becomes a test of courage. You have to look up words, pace the room and work up the nerve to communicate. It’s humbling.
- Out of the Loop. This is where someone refers to a person or event, a book, television show or comic, and you either have to hold up the whole conversation while someone explains to you what Max and Moritz is/was or you have to feign understanding and guess your way across the gap.
- Nodding and Smiling. When you didn’t quite understand what the person said but don’t want to do the whole stop and repeat palaver so you smile and nod. This works well most of the time, except when you are rumbled and come across like you either don’t care what the person is saying or are only pretending to understand everything. Cringe. In a group setting you may have to give up for a while until the conversation gets back onto solid ground. Go to a loud place and you turn into your deaf grandmother, hopelessly lost with no choice but to opt out of all the shouted conversations around you.
- Not a Whit of Wit. You might be the Oscar Wilde of your own language but in a foreign tongue you have to give up any hopes of being the funny one. Attempts to throw in witty one liners will fall flat, either because your humour doesn’t cross cultural lines or because you didn’t phrase it right. Resign yourself to laughing at other people’s jokes, if you understand them.
- Simpleton. You get used to searching for the simplest way to explain something or present an idea. You will not have three or four words to choose from to refine your point. Some contributions you will not even bother trying to make. The less vocabulary you have at your disposal, the less interesting you will be. Welcome to your new personality.
- Kids are Cruel. If you think the pained look is bad, try blank incomprehension. Many children cannot accept or believe that an adult is speaking to them incorrectly. Do they help you out, try to meet you half way? No, they are children. They don’t like speaking to adults anyway so they just boycott your efforts and leave you hanging.
The only way to get through all these challenges is with a big helping of patience and a dollop of humility. Learning is a painful process but there are rewards – people who appreciate your efforts, people who love your accent, friendships you would otherwise never have made. And then there are the good days, when you get through twenty-four hours without any of the above happening!
Does this sound familiar? What are your experiences of struggling with a foreign language? Or are you one of the lucky truly fluent few? I’d love to hear from you.