So today marks the point where I can say that I have now lived abroad for ten months! I repeat....TEN MONTHS!
The reason that I am telling you this is not because I want to show off that I have nearly got through the major obstacle of my modern languages degree but because it is quite a significant landmark in terms of the learning process that year abroaders go through. Therefore, I thought that today would be a good time to tell you a bit about some of those typical embarrassing moments that are inevitably going to happen whilst living in a foreign country and how you can go from feeling on the verge of tears every five minutes to actually feeling quite amused when you experience those cringey moments of misunderstanding that come with learning foreign languages. So for all of you who are second year languages students and will be beginning your first placement abroad in just a few months time or anybody else who is planning on living in a foreign country in the future, I hope that my advice is useful. I certainly wish I had been more prepared for these things before I started my year abroad ten months ago! :)
So! Where to start is the question!
It is tempting to tell you about the parts of my year abroad that have gone really well but I personally think that it is more useful for you to hear about the more challenging sides of it as you will therefore be more prepared if you ever live abroad as I have done. So I am going to tell you pretty much all of the awkward misunderstandings that can occur if you are speaking a foreign language all the time. But please don't let this make you feel nervous! In fact, I want it to make you feel the opposite of nervous as it is mistakes and misunderstandings that actually lead you to improving your language skills to the max! So prepare yourselves! Here is my list of embarrassing moments thanks to language barriers! :)
1. Saying yes to absolutely everything so that you sound like a pro with the language may seem like a good idea when you are in a foreign work placement and trying be helpful in the company. However, it can actually do completely the opposite and make you look slightly silly. I speak with experience as I have done this myself and come to regret it many times. Especially the time when I managed to tell somebody that they are fat simply because I said yes and nodded when I actually didn't have a clue what they had said! So yeah....definitely a no go zone! But something that people will find amusing and slightly endearing :)
2. Trying to laugh along with people so that you look like you are really engaged in a conversation. Although this seems like a polite thing to do (and I would advise you to try and engage in conversations) you do have to be a little bit careful especially when it comes to your facial expressions! I will certainly never forget the time when I was working in France and accidentally laughed when a client told me that he had been fired from his job. It is definitely not worth the embarrassment that comes with the client then speaking to one of your work colleagues about this incident who then speaks to you about it and discovers that you are completely clueless that it happened. Very awkward indeed! However, you will be pleased to hear that no harm was done as the client luckily saw the funny side of it......phew! :)
3. Trying to join in with a conversation that you only half understand is a good thing to do as you will get language practice out of it and also be more likely to get in with the people that you are with. However, I would advise you to make sure that you definitely understand the main theme of the conversation as it can be very embarrassing when you suddenly come out with a comment that relates to something that was talked about half an hour before. People tend to find this funny and it is bound to happen at some point but my advise it to definitely listen until you really have got the gist of what is going on. It will save those unnecessary spotlight moments :)
4. Learn basic grammar rules! For example, if you go to Spain it is always useful to learn the difference between the verbs ser and estar! I am telling you this because I managed to tell someone that they looked pretty on that one particular day when they actually wanted me to say that they look pretty all the time! Luckily people understand when things like that happen but for your sake it is better to avoid moments when you want the ground to swallow you up!
5. Tuning into conversations that appear incredibly interesting to you is great but try to clarify what is being talked about rather than imagining a situation that you think is occurring and then looking like a major drama queen when you start trying to have an input in the discussion. This very typically happens on work placements after something out of the ordinary has happened in the company. There are many times that this has happened to me but I always see it as something amusing as you do tend to discover a lot about the extent of your imagination. In my case, I have come to realize that I have a very extensive imagination!
6. And finally.......remember not to mumble when at the checkout in a supermarket to try and hide your foreign accent as the likelihood is that the shopkeeper will not understand you and it will cause heads to turn in your direction :) my advice is to speak loudly and clearly (obviously not too loud!) to avoid that awkward moment when shopkeepers or bus drivers look at you with a look of complete and utter confusion on their faces. One man in a supermarket in France told me that I sound like Bridget Jones when he heard me speak French which I'm not sure is a compliment or an insult as I was trying to speak with my best French accent! I managed to laugh it off though! After all, that is not something you hear everyday :)
So there you go! Now you know about some of the embarrassing situations that I have encountered on my year abroad. There are many many more but I think we would be here all night if I told you about all of them. So I am going to stop there.
The main message that I want you to get from this is that it is inevitable that you will make mistakes (especially at the beginning). However, you must try very hard not to let these mistakes get you down as they are a natural part of language learning that simply can't be avoided. In fact, I would say that the most memorable incidences (for the wrong reasons!) have probably been the most important linguistic learning curves for me. This is because when I first got to France last summer, I could not see past my embarrassment every time I said something awkward that made everybody laugh. However, as time has passed, I have noticed how much less tense I am when speaking the languages and how much more I am learning as a result of looking at everything slightly embarrassing as funny and laughing it off! After all, this is probably the only time I will get to do a year abroad so I might as well enjoy it :) You will also find that people are very aware of the fact that you are learning the language and will not be laughing at you but with you when you make hideous mistakes. This is something very important to remember as it can be something that helps to build friendships and enables you to feel at ease with your surroundings.
So please please don't go away from this article feeling like living abroad is one big embarrassment because it is not! Many people will fear language barriers more than anything but from my experience, they can actually make the experience all the more fun and exciting. So my advice to you is not to let a little language slip up knock you! If you continue making the effort to speak and overcome your fears, you will come out of the year abroad with much better language skills than you had at the beginning! After all, practice makes perfect!