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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mistakes in Speaking a Foreign Language

When learning a foreign language, there seem to be a couple of internal signs that indicate when one has started to make progress. First, one does not have to translate every thought word for word in their head before speaking in the opposing language. Hypothetically, imagine someone asking you for directions to a restaurant, and by chance you happen to know the location of this restaurant. If this was asked in one's native tongue, this would take very little effort on either person's part.

Now imagine that this question was asked in French by a native French speaker while you happen to be a native English speaker. Let's imagine that you had been practicing your French, but still had limited experience. The most likely internal scenario would be for you to think out the directions in English, translate word for word in your head to French, and then explain to the other person where to go. Once a person becomes more comfortable speaking a foreign language, this internal process becomes less frequent.

The other sign that progress in a foreign language is evident is when a person begins to lose their fear of making mistakes. It is perfectly normal to feel conscientious and embarrassed when speaking a foreign language to native speakers, as one will wonder what the others think of them, perhaps laugh at them, and just make an awkward situation all around. Fortunately, it is rare when people will laugh at you for trying to speak their language, they will probably encourage you and particularly in Paris, might even be more helpful with your query.

Once people lose their fear or consciousness of making mistakes, this does not imply that people stop making mistakes altogether, and far from it. At this point, a person might make even make more mistakes because they are making less effort to sound perfect every time they happen to speak. Though we might not notice it, we make mistakes speaking in our native language all the time, making the notion that we should be speaking a foreign language without faults seem frivolous.

On one occasion in the summer of 2008, myself and some friends from work were meeting Julie and one of her friends from home at an Indian restaurant close to her old apartment in the 15ème. After I greeted both of them, I noticed that Julie was rolling her shoulders and rubbing the back of her neck, which gave me the impression that her neck was probably sore. The word for neck in French is cou, while the word for ass is cul. In French, there is a fine line, at least for me as an English speaker, in the pronunciation of these two words. In addition, the word for sore which I had learned from Julie was bloquer , which literally means blocked. I tried to ask Julie if her neck was sore, but instead I happened to ask if her ass was blocked. Fortunately, they saw my mistake and didn't give me too much trouble about it. Needless to say, those are two words that I rarely mix up anymore.

Inversely, we as English speakers can gain insight into how a foreign language is spoken by how a non native speaker converses with us in English. If a non-native speaker says something that to us sounds ridiculous, there is a possibility that one word in French has similar meanings, or what they said was literally translated. For personal example, I remember when Julie was doing her taxes a couple of years ago and she kept telling me how boring they were, though her tone of voice seemed to imply that she was pretty frustrated. I thought, "Well, I guess they can be boring." After she said it a couple more times, I finally realized that she meant that her taxes were in fact annoying. In French, the verb ennuyer can mean to be bored or annoyed, depending on the context. Julie just happened to choose the wrong English equivalent. There are several words in French that have more than one meaning, depending on the context and the words placed around it, such as encore (still, again, more, another, too) and toujours (always, forever, still, all the same, anyway).

Translating catch phrases word for word from one language to the other almost never works. For example, one might hear in France that "it's raining like a cow pisses" to describe a hard rainstorm. In English, we happen to use "it's raining cats and dogs." Both describe the same event, though I have to say that I think the French one seems to make more sense to me. If one tried to say in French that it is raining cats and dogs, a French person could rightfully be confused and might wonder how to protect the outside of their home and car from the unprecedented cat and dog rain.

So if you happen to be learning a foreign language, the only way that you will improve is through practice. So get out there, embarrass yourself, confuse your ass with your neck, and find yourself a little closer to understanding and fluency in another language.


  1. No doubt doctoral theses have been written about this topic. What about flirting in a foreign language? I had a rough go of trying to flirt w/ Italian girls via my modus operandi of playful sarcasm. Even with a high degree of fluency, there are plenty of nuances with sarcastic expression that can miss the playful mark and end up seeming malicious/rude.

    Anyway, good post.


  2. Hey Chris-

    I feel like I've seen more luck with that here than not. I'm not sure if this happened much when you were in Italy, but I've had a couple of friends who have gotten French girls because their French was so bad, that it was actually cute that they were making the effort and completely butchering their languages. But I definitely agree, sometimes it can come off the wrong way.

    Thanks for writing buddy-


  3. Ha! I guess I picked the wrong country.