When I first arrived in Paris, an approach from a stranger provoked a similar reaction to a missile attack … eyes wide with fear, palms sweating, my mouth would have time to open slightly before freezing, lagging noticeably behind my brain (which had frozen the second the incoming enemy fire was detected). The words to answer this innocent stranger’s question were not caught in the back of my throat, they simply did not exist.
Sometimes the stranger would shrug their shoulders and walk away. Sometimes they would look curiously at me and repeat their question. If they stayed long enough, the brain would eventually kick (lethargically) back into action and they would invariably receive a stilted “Je ne comprends pas, je suis désolée” (“I don’t understand, I’m sorry”). Full-scale terror eased, I would continue on my journey in a state of high alert, eyes darting to all sides, attempting to identify and avoid future incoming threats.
Fast-forward to today, and after living in France for most of the last 18 months, I can now hold my own in most conversations, and even found myself keeping track of two simultaneous conversations around a rowdy dinner table last week. Difficult interactions are a thing of the past, and my French is doing pretty nicely thank you very much… or so I thought.
Enter my experience of attempting to purchase a second-hand bicycle over the phone this week. I called to make enquiries about whether the bike was still available and, if so, how I could arrange to collect it. I was prepared to go to the owner’s house to pick it up, whatever arrangements suited him best. I just wanted the bike.
Unfortunately the connection wasn’t very good. If the conversation had been in English, I possibly could have made out the sense of the sentences from the small fragments I heard. But in French, I just couldn’t hear him well enough to get the drift of what he was saying.
I thought nothing of having to ask for a repeated sentence. But apparently he did…
“You’re not French, are you?”
“Ah, no.” (D’uh. Was is my accent that gave it away???)
“If you want to have a conversation like this, you should be sure you will understand it before you call.” (Boom – take that sucker punch!)
“Uh, er, actually it’s not a problem with my French, it’s that the network is cutting out and I can’t hear you. When I can hear you, I understand everything you say.”
The “gentleman” in question then told me to call back at 7pm to organise where to pick up the bike. When I did so, he didn’t answer the phone. Nor did he respond to my text messages. I guess he wanted to sell his bike to someone who could speak French at a level that met his expectations.
Learning a non-native language isn’t an easy task, especially in adulthood. Neither is adapting to a new and different culture. No matter how similar it may seem to your own before you arrive, there will invariably be differences that are testing.
When a local is patient and understanding it makes all the difference in the world to a foreigner’s integration and language-learning experience. A willingness to try to understand, even when the constructed phrase isn’t perfect, and a little bit of help with the missing words go a long way towards making someone feel welcome. If you go as far as slowing down the occasional difficult sentence, well, you will be seen as something of a godsend!
Most of us are in the habit of living our lives in a rush… and some of us probably get a bit frustrated when trying to communicate with someone who is in my country but doesn’t speak my language. But it’s important to remember the flip-side… this person is in your country because they are interested and want to have a great time. They are often in a very uncomfortable situation and will greatly appreciate even the smallest kindness.
So if you are talking to someone who is putting themselves out of their comfort zone, attempting to communicate in a non-native language, and genuinely making an effort… I urge you to exercise a bit of understanding and help them out where you can. Giving a few moments of your time and patience will really help this person in their quest to learn your language… and greatly enhance their experience of your country.
* Image courtesy of sxc.hu