As you can imagine, the language barrier is a biggie, so I would be remiss not to post (first of several) about this particular hairy monster that we must adapt and adjust to as best we can. To sum up the language ‘thing’, the motto is just, ‘be nice’. As a Southerner might say, “when you don’t know the language from a hill of beans, it’s best, just to be nice.” When I was fresh off the plane, I smiled so much, my cheeks hurt, but now I just have really strong cheek muscles and it has served me well. When I arrived, my french was relegated to just the basics–‘bonjour’, ‘merci’, ‘au revoir’ and of course those that all of us learned from Lady Marmalade in the 70’s (we all know the ones, let’s leave it at that!). Needless to say, a big portion of humble pie is always on the menu when you are learning a new language.
Let me tell you about one particular piece of humble pie I ate. I was already nervous, because I was to meet my husband’s family for the first time. I worked overtime before they arrived, cranking out the french lessons one after another using my language software, zipping through each one before the characteristic harp noise could signify that the right answer was chosen. Man, I was ready and thought I would be OK, as long as the topics stayed simple (insert misconception #1). But no one ever talked about dogs, cats, airplanes or boats, which is the useless dribble you learn first. I tried to insert the topics when I could, but frankly, I was even boring myself in doing so. Then, to add insult to injury, I mispronounced one of the simplest responses, ‘merci beaucoup’ (phonetically correct: mair sea/bow coow) instead, I pronounced ‘beaucoup’ incorrectly as, ‘bow cyu’. In doing so, I essentially told my future brother-in-law, that he had a nice derriere. Not the lasting impression I had in mind, but boy, did I make one! He smiled and kindly corrected me, understanding what I meant to say while preserving both our dignities, thank goodness! Then I thought, oh my, to how many others had I said it incorrectly? I could only hope that they all understood too and knew that I tried my best, as evidenced by my good-hearted brother-in-law.
It really was and still is amazing, how accepting people are when you at least try to speak their language. I have been told by a few native French who have encountered more than a few other English speakers (namely Brits & Americans) who come and expect people to adapt to their way, with no intention of learning the language. This was shocking to me. Again, as a Southerner, my family would be aghast to know that I had been a guest in another country (similar to visiting someone’s home) and didn’t do my best to be a good one during my stay. I think learning just a few words of the language in whatever country you visit or live, is very much like visiting a friend’s home and bringing a small gift to show your gratitude. It is a gift to see the world and meet new people, so why wouldn’t we treat it as such?
Looking backward through the binoculars, it is difficult to humble one’s self in needing the help of others and becoming dependent on the kindness of strangers. So much rides on a first impression that to look foolish for not saying something properly, can be very disheartening and prevent you from dusting yourself off to try again. So, I can certainly understand why there are people who do not learn because of their fear of being humiliated or not being accepted. Sadly, the opposite is true from my experience. People want to help you when you make the effort. Just think of friends, coworkers or your own children who you knew were doing their best to learn and they smiled when you tried to teach them. The same philosophy works, be nice and try your best even if it’s only a few words, use them and you will be surprised how well and how far it will take you!