Fifteen years ago, when I retired from my career as a motion picture executive, I tried my hand teaching English to a group of Japanese visual arts students who were spending a year studying abroad in Los Angeles. Much of their behavior, I knew, was based on their culture of shame, so I wasn’t surprised by their reluctance to respond to my questions, fearful as they were that their classmates might see them as stupid if their English was less than flawless. “Please don’t look for perfection,” I implored them. “We don’t need it in order to communicate our thoughts and feelings.” But my words went ignored. I tried another tactic: what if I were to get them out of the classroom and into the real world so they could see for themselves that communication need not be without grammatical errors? I would set them loose at the nearby Third Street Promenade Mall in Santa Monica so that they could practice speaking English with salespeople. As in any large city, salespeople are accustomed to visitors with a limited vocabulary; they’re typically patient and helpful while potential foreign buyers find their words. Why not take our language learning on the road, albeit the road around the corner? The young women in my classroom gasped behind their hands at such an audacious suggestion, and the young men were also opposed. “What if we make a mistake with our words?” they all wanted to know. I told them, of course, that no one would blink an eye (and then quickly explained the meaning of the expression), but they weren’t buying it. They voted down the walking trip to the mall and opted instead to learn English in the safety of the classroom, slapping their heads when they were unhappy with their own responses, and cursing themselves softly in their native Japanese when they felt they could’ve done better.
I chalked up the experience to one specific Asian culture, and was therefore surprised when this same attitude was repeated in Spain, where I taught creative writing in three milieus: at a University; at a government-operated language school; and in private workshops. “Ach, my English is so bad,” the Spanish students often said, and again, there was the ubiquitous, self-effacing slapping of the forehead.
This past summer, I attended the wedding of one of my former Spanish students in the idyllic countryside outside Barcelona. Some of the younger guests were English speakers, but my peers—parents, aunts and uncles—were not. At breakfast the next morning I asked one of the groom’s aunts, in my rudimentary and always incorrect Spanish, if she had ever been to London. “Oh, no,” she said with surprise. She went on to say that she studied English in high school and hadn’t used it since, and it would be terribly embarrassing to speak English in England and get it wrong. I explained that I learned Spanish in high school and had no fear whatsoever of getting it wrong. The point, I told her with my hundred word vocabulary, is to communicate, as we were doing at that very moment. Did she think I was stupid when I said “Ayer yo voy?” (“yesterday I go”)? Of course not. She didn’t think I was stupid at all.
“Well,” I told her, “nobody will think you are, either.”
As a frequent traveler, I have dozens of anecdotes of my own foibles with foreign language, but I can honestly report that despite the furrowed brows I sometimes encounter, I am not daunted. I always begin with a greeting in the native language of the country I’m visiting—it’s essential, I believe, to let natives know we’re making an effort, that we’re honoring their language and therefore their culture and their history. I follow up with a combination of simple words in English and any words of their language that I have available. Hand and facial gestures are also essential. Once, in a department store in Madrid, I found it impossible to communicate my need for a cosmetics case; I didn’t know the word for cosmetics or case. I tried “box” and “bag,” two words I knew in Spanish, but the furrowed eyebrows of the salesperson persisted. Finally, I used the word “thing” and mimed a small rectangle. I pulled a lipstick from my purse and pretended to place it into the imaginary thing.
“Ah!” she said, and then she directed me to the store’s selection. Clearly, she didn’t see me as stupid, and I hadn’t been annoying her. The furrowed brow merely signified her concentration on what I was trying to say. I’ve had similar situations in pharmacies and shops across Europe, Asia and in South America. With the exception of one unfortunate communication lapse in Southern Italy where the pharmacist mistook the heat rash cream I needed for something more—personal—I have never been embarrassed by my fractured but never broken use of other languages.
If there’s one thing I can communicate to new speakers of English or any language, it’s this: You are not stupid. You are merely in the process of learning something new. Be proud of your boldness!
I recently learned that the lovely woman I met at the wedding did indeed travel to London with her husband for a week, and they had a glorious time speaking imperfectly without embarrassment.
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