A quick note to anyone who tried to write to me about Wednesday’s article ‘Serendipity and language-learning‘.
We had technical problems with email addresses across our organisation, due to me doing something in a hurry and not recognising the consequences for a day and a half.
Emails got bounced back to the sender, which isn’t cool.
If you hit ‘reply’ to this, or any other article you receive from me, your email should get through. From Wednesday morning until Thursday afternoon that didn’t happen.
if you had something you wanted to share, do try again.
OK, so today’s topic came from a conversation with my online Swedish conversation partner yesterday (Hej Lars!)
He’s in Gothenburg, I’m in Bologna.
He does 30 mins of Swedish conversation with me once a week, and I organise for one of our teachers to do an online Italian lesson with him in exchange.
Anyway, something Lars said yesterday morning (I THINK I understood it…) resonated with me.
He was talking about practicing his speaking before coming to Italy in the fall, and he mentioned ‘preparing’ for typical situations, for example by practicing a typical dialogue – you get the idea – so as to be ‘ready’, to feel in control, come the moment when he’d need to say “A beer, please. And make it COLD!” or whatever.
Now something about this idea has never convinced me.
Yes, you can practice certain phrases, such as “Excuse me, how do I get to the station from here?”
But if you NEED to practice saying things like that, then it’s more or less guaranteed you won’t have the listening skills to process the reply.
For you cannot control, or effectively predict, what you might hear in response.
“I’m sorry, I’ve not the slightest idea. I’m not from round here, you see. Why don’t you ask someone else?” (said rapidly…)
“We’re changing the barrel / cleaning the pipes / The delivery didn’t come. What about a Cuba libre instead?”
Worse than not understanding the reply is when you do your best to speak in the language of the country you’re visiting, only for the reply to come IN ENGLISH!
They’ve picked up on your accent, your weird clothes, or your hesitancy.
And wanting to help, wanting to be sure that they serve you correctly, or simply wanting to practice their own language skills, they respond to you in your own language, or in the international language.
This happened to me SO OFTEN in Istanbul where, remember, I can (at least in theory) speak the language.
I’d go into the little grocer’s (bakal) in the street we were staying in, pick out a few overpriced cold beers from the cooler, take them to the sulky-looking guy watching TV from behind the till, and ask in my politest Turkish, “How much?”
“Thirty!” he’d snap back in English, without taking his eyes off the TV.
I was not best pleased.
And it happened day after day.
They got used to me, and started replying in Turkish.
And the point is?
Other people’s EXPECTATIONS of what you’ll be able to do AFFECT THE INTERACTION.
Once they’d got the idea that, perhaps unlike other foreigners who’d come into the shop recently, it wasn’t necessary to use the English they’d half-learnt at school and so risk embarassment…
Then they relaxed and started behaving normally, confident that I’d hold up my end.
Another example: my wife’s Swedish family all think my Swedish is wonderful!
It isn’t, of course.
But enough time has passed that they’re used to being able to speak to me in Swedish and get some semblance of an intelligent reply (I don’t let on when I’m not following…)
The default for Swedish people is to speak to foreigners in English.
If you want to interact with them in their own language, you have to TRAIN THEM to relax back out of that default.
“Hej, crappy Swedish weather again today, hah hah! Back in Italy, where I live, it’s ten degrees hotter than this. Still, I suppose you guys like rain. Now, got any cold beer??”
Say something like that to the guy behind the ‘bakal’ till in Stockholm, with a degree of swagger and in a more or less natural accent, and there’s no way they’ll be anxious about speaking their own language back to you.
I’ll repeat this, because I think it’s important.
And put it in bullet points!
- the listeners’ expectations about what you are capable of are as important, or more important, than your actual ability
- if they don’t expect the interaction to be successful or easy, or if they just want to help you, they will likely switch to English (assuming they’re able to)
- if they don’t have English, they may refuse to interact with you at all to avoid embarassment. Or behave rudely, perhaps because interacting with you is making them anxious…
- but if you behave appropriately, and persist…
- the moment at which they realise that it is actually OK to be speaking their own language with you IS EVIDENT. Body language, facial expressions and so on signal the point at which they relax and go back to behaving normally, speaking their own language as they would with any ‘normal’ customer
It’s not that practising typical conversations is a waste of time.
It’s just that it’s the OTHER SIDE of the dialogue that matters most.
Which is why I’m always, always, always saying – work on your listening and reading comprehension skills.
If you know what people are on about, if you can pick out the ‘gist‘, you’ll be able to hold up your end of the conversation.
Even just by grunting if you wish.
For actual speech, with all its complexities of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and Uncle Tom Cobley and all becomes virtually redundant if you have a good understanding of what the other person is saying.
You: (putting cold beers on the counter, wordlessly)
Surly shop guy: That’ll be thirty TL, please.
You: (understanding the sum, count cash from your wallet)
Surly shop guy: Thank you so much. Have a pleasant evening! Would you like a bag for those?
Surly shop guy: There! Enjoy your stay in our lovely city!
You: (grunt and turn towards the door)
Listening is the key.
Or at EasyItalianNews.com, three times a week, every week, here.