“Tongue tied”: When you think you’re fluent in a foreign language and 7 setbacks that show you’re not quite there yet…

As a Flemish-speaking Belgian; who lived half her life speaking English in Australia; and subsequently married a Frenchman and moved to Paris; it’s safe to say that my linguistic skills range from being a fluent smooth talker to stumbling around like a 4 year old (sometimes even changing levels within the same conversation).

When I first met my husband, my high-school French had to suffice, while I took on extra language courses in my quest to become a bona fide ‘française’ (or at the least, sound like one….) Being a native Flemish speaker as well (which is essentially just Dutch, but with a cooler accent, teehee 😉  I honestly thought I was doing a good job.  However, often I’m met with a few setbacks which take me down a peg and remind me that, no matter how fluent I might become, there will always be these hick-ups. This, in turn, damages my confidence at times and makes me feel like I’ll always be the eternal ‘outsider’.

The following setbacks do not necessarily block the communication, but tend to derail the messages I’m trying to get across. These obstacles are not only limited to my time in France but are based on various experiences my family and I have had over the years, all over the world.

1. Vocal cultural contrast 

I don’t know if this is specific to English-speakers, or if I’m just a talker, but I always tend to add a little backstory or example to ‘further explain’ my messages. Even writing this now, I know I’m not making a lot of sense.. so let me add a backstory to clear it up 🙂  For example, when needing to change an appointment; the French simply call… change the date….say goodbye (they are direct, but still have manners).. and hang up. Me, on the other hand, I feel the need to explain why I am changing the appointment. Doing this in my native language, takes a matter of two seconds: “Hi, I need to change the appointment, I have to pick up my child from school earlier than I thought“. However, throw in a second or third language, and that simple explanation turns into a mumble of excuses! “Hi… I need to change my appointment.. the family… my kid is at school… but they can’t be for long.. I have to pick them up..*fumbles with phone’s translation app* ..*groan*”.  Frankly, no one has time for that; and some lose patience;  which gets you even more tongue tied when you hear someone’s annoyed sighing on the other end. Keep it simple… if you stay simple, chances are you’ll be understood better.

2. The ‘direct translation’ catch 

This one has gotten me on numerous occasions… I know that the basic message is usually received when we translate directly from our native language.. however certain misuses of words can often lead to either comical or awkward situations. I once told my mother-in-law I was excited to see my husband again after 3 months… sounds innocent enough right.. but the word ‘excité‘ in French is more commonly used when someone is excited in the .. let’s say.. more ‘romantic’ sense (yes, I mean horny).  I also once told them I lost my mind which, using direct translation, lead them to believe that I had misplaced my brains. My Belgian friends have had a chuckle or two where I’ve thrown in some expressions directly translated from English. My girlfriend was very confused when I randomly started blabbing about pastries when her partner ‘wanted to have it all‘.. in Belgium, it seems, people don’t “have their cake and eat it too“.

3. You’re not funny in another language

There’s nothing worse than trying to fit in with a joke and being the only one left laughing to an awkward silence or the sound of crickets chirping. Unless the joke is a primary school leveled wisecrack, I’d stay away from using witty humor in another language until you’ve mastered it. Like the above two points, a lot of the underlying wit is often misinterpreted or the message is lost in translation. A direct translation can lead to an entirely different joke and don’t forget the cultural differences in what we perceive as ‘funny’. What may be seen as dirty in one language, can be construed as completely vulgar in another. Also, some things are just funnier in one language and not the other (looking at a play of words, colloquial meanings etc) …. well at least you cracked yourself up right?

4. Some people just switch off as soon as they hear an accent

It’s unfortunately true that some people switch off and stop listening as soon as they hear an accent. This does not mean they are completely ignoring you, nor that they are discriminating (calm down), but they only end up hearing what they want to hear and they no longer put in the effort. For me, this happens most frequently when on the phone. At least in person you could charm them with a smile or sad ‘please-I’m-not-fluent-but-I’m-trying’ puppy eyes. In certain cultures, it is also common that someone refuses to tell you they don’t understand you…. a Chinese person will rather send you clear across town before admitting he did not understand your request for directions (then again, by being sent all over the city is how I got to explore the majority of Hong Kong.. brownie points).

5. An attempt to master the accent ends up in a drunken slur

Sometimes we try to master an accent in order to sound more fluent, however we focus less on the grammar and start making mistakes. We often pick up on these mistakes straight away, but instead of changing our accents mid sentence (because we don’t want to sound like an idiot), we end up slurring or mumbling our way out of it. I think it’s better to speak the language correctly, even if our accents are lousy, rather than sound like a fluent, but moronic, native.

As a side note, I would like to include the actual slurring incidents (usually  as a result of one too many beers) where we think we’re a lot more fluent than what we are (we also think we’re better dancers, philosophers and peacekeepers).

6. The nonexistence of certain words

Anyone who speaks more than one language is familiar with the scenario where you know the perfect word or expression to describe your situation, just not in the language you need at the time. A direct translation of such a saying only results in confusing the person even more. Just like having ‘chickenskin’ (‘kippenvel’ in Dutch) is not the right way to describe goosebumps, neither is ‘becoming a goat’ (devenir chêvre’ in French ) to tell people you’re being driven mad by all the language jumbles. We,multilingual speakers, would kick ass at scrabble if we could just mix and match the languages we know.

7. Language fusion 

Any multilingual family can relate with the vast mixing pot of languages we deal with on a daily basis. Because we all speak the different languages together, often our sentences can start in one language and finish in the other (heck, let’s add a third one in the middle, just for shits and giggles – another expression badly translated by the way). We do it with such speed and accuracy that we don’t even notice the difference.

Fast forward to when you’re speaking with someone who is not part of that same family and you’ve got yourself a very confused listener. Just like our 3 year old, who is currently speaking in three languages… often in the same sentence (seriously, the teachers at her kindergarten have no idea what she’s talking about), I’m often throwing in a word in English hoping no one will notice and think I’m super fluent and oh so funny hahahaaa.. Nevertheless, unlike my 3 year old who will grow out of it soon and master her linguistics, I’ll need some more practice…..

The idea that the world of each language is divided into two groups: “fluent” and “non-fluent” is not realistic . Language is a living thing; it always happens within a certain context and every scenario is different for everyone. Fluency is not purely linguistic but involves non-verbal communication as well . Written fluency won’t help you to understand the meaning of a nod or a gesture. I think that’s why children (well.. children and drunk people) can communicate so well… they focus on what the person is trying to relay rather than how they are saying it.

I know, with time, I’ll hopefully master the French language and walk around like I own the place, but in the meantime I’ll just row my boat on the ‘fluent enough’ plateau and go from there..

I hope some of you could relate, and you’re welcome to share your funny ‘lost in translation’ moments in the comments below for us to have a shared chuckle..

In the meantime I bid you ‘adieu’ with ‘nog een prettige dag verder’ or ‘une bonne journée’

sans-titre

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“Lost in Translation”: Being in a multilingual environment

You don’t have to be an expat these days to be surrounded by languages other than your own. With the world as our oyster today, people are traveling and relocating abroad, making for a beautiful, multicultural mixing pot.

Along with that, comes the vast array of different languages spoken, which can sometimes bring some challenges. Married to a Frenchman, I was raised in Belgium and spent the last 13 years in Australia before ‘expating’ around.  As a result, our daughter (and dog) are being raised with 3 languages as well as hearing the local Chinese dialect on a daily basis. It’s going quite well, although on some days, swapping between languages can often result in them forming into one weird combo-language, which makes me sound as if I’m speaking in tongues..

I most certainly am not an expert in linguistics, but I thought to share a few things I picked up along the way:

1) Never get too cocky too soon… take your time learning a new language (or you’ll end up in a Polish bar ordering two ‘prostitutes’ rather than the two ‘Piwo’ (beers) you really wanted… very awkward moment.)

2) I find when someone is speaking to you in a language that is not their native tongue, it’s important to be appreciative that they are making this effort, regardless of the mistakes they make or the thick accent they may have.

3) Although they say that human communication consists of 93 percent body language (while only 7% of consists of words themselves), body language isn’t everything and culture can still play a big part in how we perceive what someone else is saying. This was apparent when our neighbors used to think we were fighting whenever mom called us down for dinner (apparently the Flemish language is not kind on strangers’ ears) or when and old Chinese lady started frantically waving her arms at my friend and yelling in Cantonese (which afterwards, a friendly passer-by informed us, she was merely telling us how excited she was to meet Westerners). 

4) I don’t believe that the rule should be ‘whichever country you are in, theirs is the only language you must speak’ (That would have put me in quite a pickle on many holidays, if that were the case..). I appreciate that when one relocates to another country, it is beneficial to learn (or at least try and learn) the local language, but if someone wants to speak their native tongue at home or with their fellow countrymen, I don’t see the big deal and if anything, trying to learn some new words (especially the naughty ones) is always fun.

5) Going on from point (4), I do feel it is important however, that when you are in a group with a mix of people from different countries (and thus, different languages) you make sure people don’t feel too excluded and offer to translate if the situation calls for it.

6) Always be weary that when you are abroad speaking your own language, that does not mean people won’t understand what you are saying. A lesson learned by the Dutch family complaining about the wait staff at the Australian restaurant I worked in, spending the entire evening poking fun at us (including my shoes… a weird focus point but ok)… it felt good, at the end of the evening, to thank them and welcome them back anytime (in perfect Dutch of course).

7) If someone is telling you off in a language you don’t understand and any efforts made to try and find a mutual understanding are futile, by all means you let them have it in your own words as well . (Not something that has actually happened to me, but a scenario I have imagined when having made-up arguments in the shower).

8) When drinking alcohol, it is miraculous how, after a few pints, you can often understand someone when you don’t even speak the same language… because ‘drunk’ seems to be a universal language spoken by many.  This can also apply to various accents (when I share a beer with an Irishmen or a Scot, I genuinely come to find things ‘grand’ and ‘to be sure t’be good to have another pint’). Same goes for my husband who, after watching two back-to-back episodes of ‘The Wire’, will walk around the house calling everything a ‘motherf*ker’ for the better part of an hour.

I can go on for days with examples, but with this I bid you adieu, farewell, auf wiedersehen, ciao, au revoir, tot ziens, ma’a as-salāmah (and I can seriously just keep on Google-ing here….

03_12_09_small(pic: englishhub.com)