I should preface this article by saying that I believe learning a language is an immensely edifying experience that enriches one’s life in almost every aspect. As with most edifying experiences, however, a small degree of suffering is necessary to make the success taste sweet. There are particular instances in which a deficiency in the learned language strips your veneer of self-confidence. Yes, when you overcome the moments, you come out stronger and probably a little more fluent, but they’re not much fun when you’re in the middle of them. Here are the five times I hate speaking in a foreign language:
At The Barber’s
I shuffle nervously in the chair and then a man I’ve known for approximately three minutes approaches me with a sharp implement in his hand. Welcome to the barber shop.
I maintain that a visit to a barber is a uniquely strange social occurrence. It’s rare, I think, for men to willingly put themselves into situations in which they are vulnerable, and I think you notice this in the nature of exchanges between barber and client, where the client often seems unusually eager to acquiesce. That said, I don’t think it’s an emasculating experience — like Turkish men greeting each other with a kiss to each cheek, it can be an exercise in intimacy which exudes masculinity.
OK, so I have a thing about going to the barber. And this is exaggerated when I do it in a foreign language. It’s very difficult to translate “short back and sides” into any language, with all the cultural knowledge that it connotes. Saying what you want is just really difficult. And everything you say is then interpreted through the prism of the prevailing trends in your country of residence. All of which means that every time I went to a barber in Spain between the years of 2006 and 2008, I walked out with a kind of mullet for beginners — short at the sides, but with as much volume at the back as on the top.
At A Government Building
When you first arrive in a new town in a new country, you’re obliged to pay a visit to at least a few government offices in order to register as a resident and obtain a social security number. In my experience, such offices have a tendency to employ unusually intolerant individuals, or at least to cultivate them — perhaps it’s the endless flow of clueless foreigners trying haphazardly to clue themselves up that just gets to them after a while.
My first experience of this was while obtaining my social security number (and thus becoming a productive, tax-paying member of society) in Valladolid, Spain. I’d been learning the language for all of two weeks and was heroically ill-equipped for the imminent exchange. The third time I requested that the uncivil servant repeat himself, he took to his feet and yelled across the entire room, “¿Hay alguien aquí que hable inglés?” (Is there someone here who speaks English?)
Since then, the experience has improved, but a visit to a government office still necessitates a need to judge and heighten one’s register — the formality with which one speaks. This is one of the hardest things to do in any language, including your own, and given that much of my language education took place perched on bar stools, such predicaments continue to present a particular challenge.
I enjoy exploring cities by foot, and will often opt for a 30 minute power walk over a subway ride. I worked as an English teacher for six years in five different cities, often hopping from one office to another a few times every day. I assume my purposeful stride gave people the sense that I knew where I was going, as I was often approached for directions by disoriented, flustered individuals. More often than not, I knew the way to their destination. A warm, knowing smile would communicate this and momentarily placate them. As soon as I opened my mouth and they heard my accent, however, doubt scrawled itself upon their brows once again. Most vividly I remember an elderly lady in Valladolid who asked me the way to Plaza España. All she had to do was continue walking in a straight line and she would have arrived in under five minutes. You could even see the square from where we stood. I told her as such, and she gazed at me as if my words were a landslide about to envelope her, and then proceeded to cross the road and ask someone else.
I know a German guy who lived in London for well over 25 years and speaks impeccable, clipped, home-counties English. So impeccable, in fact, and so idiomatically authentic, that you would think him English. And yet, when you ask him to do the simplest of mathematics, you’ll hear him whisper numbers in German under his breath. Even for people who have mastered a foreign language, mathematics often necessitates a return to their mother tongue.
I work with numbers and spreadsheets on a daily basis, but struggle to operate simultaneously in the language of numbers and the language of others. If asked in a foreign language to do mental arithmetic, my brain crashes. The dissonance frustrates me and sucks me into an abyss from which I can only escape if I shut down, reboot, recalculate, translate, and then respond.
It’s bad enough doing presentations in your own language. When asked what they fear most, people often think of public speaking before death. The first presentation I ever did in a foreign language was while at university in Spain. I’d been working hard to earn my keep in Madrid and had neglected my studies. I hurriedly put together a sorry excuse for a Powerpoint and delivered it the following morning in front of two professors and the rest of my class. I was quite content with my Spanish — it was, I thought, accurate, structured and readily comprehensible. Unfortunately, my presentation wasn’t, and one of the professors was particularly damning; “¡esto fue fatal!” (that was terrible!). The Trunchbull scowl of the professor pops into my head every time I’m faced with public speaking in another language, and I’m always thankful that English is the language of business, so I can rest on its laurels.
Language learning is a war of opposites on a continuum of change. You become more sensitive to social situations and how people react to you in a quest for the right tone, register and wording. This heightened sensitivity can result in glee at moderately successful communication, or dismay at its breakdown. You’ll often attribute a simple misunderstanding to your deficiency in the language rather than your interlocutor’s inability to hear over the the din of nearby conversations. These ups and downs are natural parts of the language learning process; prevailing in spite of them is what makes learning a language such a formative experience.