Kay’s post about disaster phone calls in a foreign language brought up the memory of a very very bad phone call I had this week at work. Not in Korean, but nevertheless in another language.
I speak a decent Italian. Not perfect, but I can manage fairly well, read also relatively complicated texts if allowed to use a dictionary and so on. I understand close to everything I hear – for as long as people speak “proper” Italian and don’t switch to a dialect even Italians need subtitles to understand.
At least I thought I did until that godforsaken phonecall on Wednesday…
My colleague sitting next to me suddenly went “you speak Italian, right?”
Me: “erm, yes?”
My colleague [handing me the phone]: “could you please speak to this guy? I have no idea what is going on.”
In the meantime the guy on the other end of the line had called for one of his colleagues and gone over a similar discussion.
Once I got on the phone, a woman was answering. A very annoyed woman who didn’t know the case either.
This was my first work-related phone call in Italian, I felt unprepared and I was sweating bullets.
My palms are getting sweaty just thinking about it.
I forgot important verbs, nouns, had to ask her to speak slower because she spoke like she was in a speed-speaking competition, and very quickly I came to think of the conversation as a cruel, cruel test. My colleagues were looking at me. I felt like disappearing into a hole, hoping that situational amnesia was occuring to them just as it was affecting my quickly deteriorating Italian skills so that at least they would forget the whole ordeal immediately.
After a while the woman went “do youuu speak Iiinglish?!”. The four little words no learner wants to hear.
I got the situation sorted out in a mixture of Italian and English because thankfully the things she didn’t know in English I knew in Italian and vice-versa, we all got the info we needed and nobody has been scarred for life – except for my ego that is.
After hanging up I felt like I had to say something to my colleague who assured me “don’t let them stress you”.
Even after a couple of days this can make me cringe. I’m a perfectionist. It hurts my ego that I got thrown off so easily. Must practice more!!! The only thing that soothes my nerves just the tiniest bit is that I was speaking to her in my fourth language and she was replying in her mother tongue.
Maybe that’s something we all need to remember when speaking to foreigners. Initially they might sound like they are doing well enough so we get lazy with our pronunciation, start speaking fast, and cut endings. I even have a friend whom I can barely understand when speaking on the phone, and I continously have to ask her to speak clearly. And we’re from the same country!
So let’s all take care of the learners out there; let’s speak clearly to them and not pull the native card on them. Maybe we should do that in general. Everywhere people are getting lazy about their diction.
Mark Law has written about being a beginner in judo in his book The Pyjama Game:
A white belt in the dojo is like a toddler at a tea party and demands a similar etiquette: people must take turns playing with him; it’s incumbent upon everyone to encourage him, praise his simplest achievements and not laugh when he falls over.
I think this applies to language learners too. Of course you can also belittle a language learner by praising them a little too enthusiastically when they have reached a very high level, but as in judo where foreign judoka can be nervous before fighting a Japanese in Japan even if very skilled, a language learner – even if advanced – can feel intimidated by speaking to a native. Especially if that native shows no concern towards the learner.
Having experienced being thrown, arm barred, pinned to the floor and choked in judo class, I can confidently say that being embarrassed by a native speaker of a language feels worse. In judo, at least you can surrender by tapping on the floor or your opponent with whatever limb is not stuck under your opponent to say “okay, you win, I give up” and the slate is immediately wiped clean. You get up and start over.
That being said, I think my colleague gave me some sound advice. Once we get stressed we lose everything.
So I guess my conclusion is that as learners we cannot put all responsibility for our conversational success or failure on the natives of whatever language we are trying to learn, but as natives of our own language we can at least try to increase the chances of success for the people who try to learn our language.