Annihilate your Ego- Learn a new Language!
If you have ever been to another country and have had to attempt to converse in a foreign language that you hadn't yet mastered, you will no doubt be able to identify with what I'm about to tell. If not, then read on anyway - so that you'll get an idea of what you're getting yourself into!
I assume that you're an intelligent, articulate individual, capable of expressing him/herself with precision, and perhaps even a bit of eloquence at times (or at the very least, that you know how to say what you're thinking.)
Before taking your first trip to a non-English-speaking country, you may well have spent a few years learning the language, most probably in a high school or college setting. The month before embarking on your journey, you might have worked more intensively on learning extra vocabulary, grammar, correct pronunciation, and the like. Now your
plane is landing, and you are eager to put your knowledge to the test. After all, it can't be all that hard, can it?
Well, there is always one thing you should assume in such a case: it IS going to be hard, very hard, as a matter of fact. It wouldn't be so difficult if everyone you met spoke just like they do on those language-learning CDs you have at home. But then go to the first supermarket you see in the foreign land, and try to buy some vegetables. Believe me, in all the countries I have visited, I have never met a vegetable sales person who spoke like the voice in a language lab! As a matter of fact, you'll be lucky if the sales person understands YOU, even if you speak the language relatively well. Since that person is used to dealing with his/her own countrymen, from that particular city, and from that particular section of the city, it might well be difficult for him/her to understand a foreigner speaking: they just aren't used to your accent. In the end, pointing to the vegetables you want will most likely be the best way to go about it (after all, what are fingers for, anyway?).
Of course, you will also be meeting people who speak their language in a more "standard" way. University students, for example. Naturally, even if they speak English rather well, you will not want to fall into that trap. You didn't come all the way to their country so that they can improve their English, did you? No, you want
to practice their tongue, that's why you've invested so much cash in this trip. So when you make your first acquaintances, you will hopefully immediately start speaking their language, and insist, in a friendly, yet firm manner, that you prefer it that way.
It won't be long before the basics have been covered in your conversation: where you are from, when you arrived, how long you'll be staying in that country, whether you have a girl- (or boy-) friend, and the like. Even such simple areas are often more trying than expected when they must be dealt with in a language other than your
own. But when it gets to somewhat more complicated issues, like "why the U.S. is always trying to meddle in the affairs of other nations" (yes, there are some foreigners who will say such things when they meet an American), or "why it is that there are so many religious people in America" (Europeans tending to be, on average, more secular-minded)...
Well, you may know just what you want to answer, but even if you do, you suddenly find that the words don't exactly flow from your mouth. You may not even be able to formulate the first sentence of your explanation. And for presumably the first time in many a year, you feel stupid, and truly frustrated besides.
You try to simplify your sentences (always a good way to at least communicate the gist of what you want to say), but you can't quite find the words to even do that. So you feel more stupid. Your conversation partner patiently smiles, though you can see in his eyes that he hasn't the faintest idea of what you want to express. And then he smiles a bit
more, and you see - heavens, no! - a look of pity in his eyes. Now you really feel stupid.
Okay, don't panic - maybe the three beers you just drank clouded your mind a bit... or could it be that you need a couple more to loosen your tongue? How could this be? After all, you are intelligent, you just know it. Yet now, you feel as if your IQ had dropped about 30-40 points, for you just can't find the words to explain what you're
thinking. And when all this inner confusion (allied with the effect of the beers) suddenly makes you forget what your new-found friend asked in the first place, your ego hits rock bottom, and breaks into several hundred pieces...
Take it from me: you will find yourself in such situations during the first month you spend in another country. It happens to everybody. What to do when it does? Here's some advice:
Grin and bear it. This is always a good idea when in an unpleasant situation that cannot be avoided. After all, you have come to the country to improve your language skills, and you are going to make mistakes. But what's the worst that could happen? Probably that you say something serious, but formulate it in such a way that it sounds, to the foreigner's ear, absolutely ridiculous. So ridiculous, that he bursts out laughing, as do his friends as well. Here, you have two quite opposite ways of reacting to the slight:
1) Punch the first guy who laughed in the face, and ask his friends if they want a bit of the same medicine. This course is not advisable. Besides the fact that you will have already lost the friends you made just a couple of hours before, you might well end up having your face pummeled to a jelly by the guy's friends, assisted by a few more of their countrymen who never did like Americans too much anyway. And even if you win the fight, you may end up in jail for assault and battery. Rule this option out!
2) Laugh along with them. Hey, I know it doesn't feel good to have people laugh at you, but look at it this way: laughter is excellent for the health, and by making them laugh, you are improving their health, and giving them a psychological boost as well. They always knew that they, as Europeans, were "smarter" than Americans, and you just
proved it to them... so let the babies have their bottle. Let 'em laugh, and show that you can take a joke, even if it's at your own expense.
Of course, meanwhile, you will be thinking of your "prime directive", the reason why you are there in the first place - learn their language
Whenever you are in a situation similar to this one, and frustration threatens to overwhelm you, remind yourself that the only really important thing is that YOU ARE THERE TO LEARN A LANGUAGE, not coddle your ego. Did somebody laugh at your incredibly awkward way of saying something? Good! Because anything that helps you learn is good, and I can assure you that when somebody laughs at one of your mistakes, you will almost certainly not repeat it on another occasion!
The pain of being ridiculed will have taught you that that way of saying it wasn't right. (And by the way, when the laughter has died down, don't forget to ask the foreigner what the correct way of expressing that idea would have been!)
There will be times when you return to your room, feeling foolish, lonely, homesick, and the like. At such moments, you may think of catching the first plane home, and giving up your dream of learning the language. Don't give up that easily! Start fresh the next day, meet more people (or go out again with your friends from
yesterday), and keep trying. Listen to their conversations, hear how they express themselves. Attempt to join in, saying whatever pops into your mind.
True, you may not be able to discuss Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" with them at this stage (even if you did get the highest mark in your college philosophy course), but after a while, you may be able to say: "I spilled some of my drink on the table. I'm going to go ask the waiter for a rag to clean it up." And when you can, congratulations
- it's precisely everyday sentences like this one that are often the most difficult to formulate in another language!
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Our next article is not for the prudish... Rated R: Conversation in Spain
I would sure hate to run into these guys, and not be able to communicate with them at all!
The advice you'll find in my new book will help you even if you want to learn a language that is more difficult than popular ones like Spanish, French or German.
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