Featured photo credit to Mike Geffner – a moment’s hesitation and reflection before the speech bubble bursts…
I’ve mentioned one of my favorite Czenglish phrases, “My English isn’t well today.” It’s easy enough for me to giggle about it, but the truth is that I totally get it. I’ve messed up my words before and stated I was carrying students to the cafeteria. And I’ve seen three different stages of language and culture:
First, teaching English to international, non-native speakers at CUNY Queens College, in my home country.
Second, learning a foreign language (Hebrew) abroad, in Israel.
Third, teaching English (and learning another foreign language – Czech!) abroad in the cultural context of my Czech students and in full immersion mode.
Here’s what that looks like, language faux pas-style.
While applying to Fulbright, I had to explain my interest in teaching English. I had already been working for four years one-on-one with university students learning English who were from a wide array of countries – China, Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Romania, and more. There is one encounter with a student in the first year I started teaching that I’ll never forget. He was from Bangladesh and he was working in a restaurant chain, and one week he came to me with a very difficult language question. I wrote it this way:
During my first semester at the Queens College Writing Center, a weekly Bangladeshi freshman student brought a question he’d been long incubating. “When a customer asks, ‘Is it hot?’ is there a way to distinguish between ‘hot’ spicy and ‘hot’ temperature?”
After a few seconds, I had to tell him sadly no. That in English it’s a matter of context, and beyond that, intuition. ESL students always ask the tough questions—and so constantly force me to reevaluate my native language. I had never thought about the “hot” conundrum before, but for him, a Subway employee, it was all too relevant.
It was so inspiring for me to work with non-native English speakers. I had always loved languages – as a child, I was an avid reader and certified vocabulary and spelling nerd. I had gotten 100% on most of my weekly spelling tests in elementary school and gotten to the regional round of a New York spelling bee when I was 13. I had learned the Hebrew alphabet in an after school program, and I was at the top of my class in high school Spanish.
But I had never had the opportunity to live a foreign language. That’s what these students needed to survive. They came to the States, and to New York specifically, to access high-quality education. And they might have classes about biology or urban studies, but the little mysteries of English picked at them too… like one few native speakers have discovered on their own, the quagmire of abstractness represented even by such a simple word as “hot.”
Here I am with my friend Jess at an end-of-year literary costume party. I’ll give you three guesses who I am.
I went to study in Israel in 2012, after formally taking (I think) two semesters of Hebrew class, in search of my opportunity to live a foreign language. *Unfortunately* for me, many Israelis – specifically those in university – speak English fluently. Now, if you’ve ever tried to learn a language seriously, you know that in your nervousness you will look for any excuse just to speak your own native language. So while my reading and understanding skills in Hebrew improved, my speaking skills did not, although I did try speaking in any situation when there weren’t English speakers around or whenever I was anonymous.
One lovely, warm weekend I traveled to Tel Aviv. I sat down in a nice, outdoor café to have a cappuccino, as I am wont to do, and I tried to order in Hebrew using some “command form” terms we had learned that week. Here’s how it went down.
Server (in Hebrew): Hi, what would you like?
Me: Shalom, ten li cappuccino bevakasha. [Hi, give me a cappuccino please.]
Server (in English): Are you American?
Me: Um, yeah. Was it that obvious?
Server: Well, yep.
I then profusely apologized when I realized how rude I had been (at least I’d said please?), and we ended up having a nice conversation.
I’m 87% sure he did not spit in my cappuccino.
Of course, I could have said, “Can I have a cappuccino?” but I was so excited to use what we had learned in class, and I thought “give me” might be used in the informal American sense. [Yes, we say it sometimes, but I would not recommend it after this experience :P]
Here’s the point: It’s important to make effort in a new language, keeping in mind that you will make mistakes, you will embarrass yourself, and usually you will be forgiven since everyone understands you are sincerely learning/a foreigner/trying your best. It’s not easy, at all. But there are very few people who don’t appreciate you attempting to communicate in their native language when you’re just a traveler in their homeland.
For me, one of the most difficult things about living abroad is going to the doctor. It’s bad enough in the States in my own language (I don’t particularly enjoy the doctor as I have needle phobia), so the necessity of communicating in a foreign language when I’m already uncomfortable is anxiety-inducing. The first time was in Israel when I traveled to Jerusalem alone to go to an allergy specialist when I developed an unexplainable rash. When the Hebrew-speaking nurse told me she’d have to do an allergy test (needles!), I started to cry and only managed to say, “Ani…rotza…et…ima…sheli…” (I want my mom.)
When it comes to going to the doctor in CZ, I’ve picked up a decent vocabulary and have had enough experience to be able to communicate what is wrong. Still, I’m sure the nurse is always happy to see me since I nearly hyperventilate every time I get blood drawn. “Uklidněte si” (calm down) is a common phrase I hear at the doctor’s, and sometimes I still get flustered and forget the difference between “get dressed” and “get undressed.”
But when you live in a foreign country, it’s not just important to be able to communicate but also to understand the next steps. And even if you’re lucky enough to have an English-speaking doctor, knowledge of common translation mistakes can help too…
“Your blood work looks okay, so I’ll control you again in six months.”
Did you know mind control is a common therapeutic method in former Soviet bloc countries?
(Zkontrolovat in Czech means “to check,” and kontrola is “check-up.”)
The first time, I was a bit shocked. Even after so long, I still have to smile.
Have you made any unforgettable language faux pas, in English or otherwise? Please share – I love to hear them! 😀