how to change the world

On getting words wrong

By John-Paul Flintoff

What is it, exactly, that makes us less confident in foreign languages? I know, I know, that seems like a silly question – but only because most of us have been hardened, by years of language learning at school, to think that getting something tiny like the gender of a noun wrong = personal failure and humiliation.

But it’s not.

If you are like me, and live in a thriving modern metropolis, you probably speak to dozens of foreign people each week who get your own language “wrong”. But you don’t point at them and laugh. You don’t accuse them of being bad people. You just try to understand each other, using a variety of techniques best described as Being Human.

Conversely, when you go abroad, you probably manage to get yourself understood even when your vocabulary is limited. In fact, it may be EASIER to do that when you have a limited vocab, because then you won’t go beating yourself up for not knowing the word for such-and-such. In a country where you don’t speak a single word, you’ll probably get on fine by speaking your own language, or trying the odd word from some other language you know, or miming. (This option was never on the table, obviously, at school.)

I confess that this doesn’t always happen immediately. Once, when I was sent to the Ukraine as a reporter, I was arrested (seemingly) for taking photographs of the beautiful interior of an underground station. The police officers, who interrogated me inside a metal cage, wearing very very big hats, didn’t understand a word of English. When I tried speaking German they became visibly angry, and forgot all about the camera – wanting to know instead WHY I spoke German, as if that itself were a crime. Only gradually did I remember to mime, and get really low status, and they let me out of the cage.

If you would like to learn more about being yourself in a foreign language – or even in your native language – why not come to one of our classes?

Posted: June 7, 2015