As anybody who is learning a language knows, the road to fluency can certainly be a rocky one. I used to think that a couple of months in to my year abroad I would have pretty much grasped the French language…oh how wrong I was. Of course, I’m improving, but this idea of plonking yourself into a country full of French people and the language simply diffusing into your brain in the space of a couple of months is a little bit far fetched.
One thing that certainly has increased during my year abroad, is the frequency of my awkward moments. Being unable to speak a language properly creates a breeding ground for embarrassing faux pas- of which I have had many. Thankfully, from speaking to friends, I have realised that I am most certainly not alone in this and that almost every language student experiences awkward moments of some kind.
So, I thought I’d write a post about it. If you’re a language learner then buckle up and get ready to read some #relatable content…and if you aren’t, well, you might as well stick around and enjoy laughing at my expense.
The inappropriate smile and nod
This is probably THE most common source of awkwardness on my year abroad.
We all know how awkward it feels when you don’t hear someone the first time…or the second time…or the third time. Naturally, if it has gotten to the third hearing, you really have no other option than to pretend that you know what someone said and hope for the best. Now imagine how common this occurrence is when you’re constantly trying to decode the words of a French person with a heavy southern accent.
The fact is, even though you are there to learn a language, you feel embarrassed, and frankly quite annoying, to echo every other sentence with ‘pardon?’. So instead, you wing it. Hoping and praying desperately that the context allows for a simple smile and nod without the other person questioning your sanity.
Unfortunately, as you can imagine, a smile and a nod certainly doesn’t account for all circumstances. Most of the time you end up caught in an awkwardly long pause or are faced with a look from the other person that says ‘is this person alright in the head?’. Believe it or not, I know someone whose use of this classic trick meant that she actually laughed enthusiastically in response to her neighbour telling her that his brother had just passed away. Thankfully I’ve never misjudged a situation quite as badly as that…
The conversation race
Speaking to someone else in another language is one thing. Trying to keep up with a conversation between 5+ people speaking at 100mph in their mother tongue at pre drinks is an entirely different story. Add alcohol and loud music into the mix and you really don’t stand that much of a chance.
One of the issues about not yet being able to think in another language, is that there is an entire process that goes on in your mind before you can simply just say what you want to say. You understand what’s going on, but by the time you figure out how you’re going to form a coherent sentence, you’re already too little too late. This is when the smile and nod technique from before usually comes into play…
The restaurant stand-off
This one is probably more specific to English people but it is something that ALL of my friends have experienced.
Being in France, you would think that it makes sense to speak French when ordering food in a restaurant…unfortunately, it usually takes a matter of seconds for the waiter to recognise your English accent. You watch their eyes light up and a little grin emerge on their face as they realise the opportunity to practise their English. From then on, you find yourself caught in an awkward stand-off with your waiter in which both of you refuse to back down and speak your native language, resulting in a bizarre, and subtly tense role reversal right up until you pay the bill.
This is actually one of the most annoying moments in this list, but hey, at least the food is usually amazing.
The dreaded phone call
Allegedly 80% of communication between people is non-verbal, leaving our actual words and sentences to convey a measly 20%. Taking this idea into account, you can appreciate how difficult it is to speak to someone in another language over the phone. No lip reading, no gestures, no nothing. You’d be surprised how much you rely on that kind of stuff to have a clue what’s going on.
I haven’t needed to have too many phone calls since being in France but all the ones I have endured have been a struggle, usually resulting in me saying ‘pardon?’ and ‘ah oui’ an inordinate amount of times…I’ve never been so grateful to hear the hang up tone.
One thing I have noticed here in France is that they often struggle to understand people that speak with an accent. I can’t count the amount of times that I have said a word in a SLIGHTLY different accent, even when there is a clear context, and the French person has looked at me blankly having absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.
Again, this is probably one of the most frequent and unavoidable awkward moments when learning a language. You quickly learn that perfectly innocent words can easily become something much more vulgar with a slightly different pronunciation: something that can be both embarrassing and hilarious. Just the other week I was telling my flat mate a story and I said the word ‘route’ (meaning road), yet he thought I was saying ‘rut’ which means…well, look it up if you’d like to know.
Although these moments can be embarrassing they are actually a really funny (and pretty unavoidable) part of learning a language. Embracing it is probably the best thing you can do because there’s probably a lot more where that came from. I hope some of you actually found this relatable and that I’m not the only one out here facing the struggle!
(Feel free to share your embarrassing language speaking stories if you wanna make me laugh/feel better about my own awkwardness).