Why learning a language is like meeting the in-laws

Language learning is about a lot more than just learning verb tables. Anyone who has spent years studying one will tell you that still, every now and then, there are times when it feels like you’ve made no progress at all, that there are still misunderstandings, there are still words you’ve never heard of, and you still sometimes get a response that consists of a polite smile and a cascade of sympathetic English. It’s a funny situation: at times you can feel like a fully-fledged member of the club, while at others you might wonder whether you even speak the language at all. On the one hand you’re in, on the other you’re also out.

It’s a lot like meeting the in-laws. Your partner’s family is happy to have you there. They welcome you, offer you a seat at their dinner table, and start to treat you like one of their own. But just as you start to relax and really “feel at home”, you do something horrific and unthinkable, like ask for the salt without realising the huge insult that it might seem to your new mother-in-law’s cooking. Maybe, to the family’s horror, you even try to strike up a conversation about football, which turns out to be a taboo subject for them over dinner. Or maybe they start talking about politics, and you find yourself left with nothing to say. Suddenly you find yourself feeling more than a little out of place and that the future of your relationship rests on a lot more than the opinions of just one family member. Because you’re a newcomer you will get the benefit of the doubt, but you realise that despite the seemingly warm welcome, you’re not in your own house.  Therefore, you need to tread carefully.

But you’re not the only person in this situation. Perhaps your partner has siblings who have invited their other halves to dinner as well. What gets you through the excruciating affair are the knowing, encouraging glances you can shoot each other when the going gets tough. You’re both outsiders there, you’re both faced with the same challenges, and you’re both making just as conscious an effort to fit in. You might not know each other or even be from entirely different places, but your shared experience of “the in-laws’” can bring you together. When you get a chance to exchange a few words, it’s a lot more relaxed and down to earth. You know they’re not going to be offended if you mention football or confess that you’ve brought your own salt, because the household’s etiquette is just as unfamiliar to them as it is to you. With them you can drop the pretences and behave more like yourself. But despite this small comfort, you’ve still got a lot to learn before the family will accept you as a fully-fledged member.

Each language has its own complex of set of rules, conventions, dos, and don’ts. There are dialects, nuances, registers and slang-words that each appropriate to different situations. As you dive as a language learner into this complicated world, it’s important to work out where you are starting off. What impression are you actually giving? Does your pronunciation infer anything you might not be aware of? Are you using regionalisms that might not be understood in other parts of the country? Are you adjusting your register for when you’re talking to friends or strangers? When is it acceptable to use expletives?

These kinds of questions are not necessarily easy to answer, and realistically it might take you years to fully get your head round them. You should also be prepared for the answers to only come to you through plenty of uncomfortable moments and embarrassing faux pas. But don’t worry too much. What you can’t express through your language you can make up for in other ways. While you’re trying to work out why an innocent hand gesture to order five bottles of beer made your Greek waiter’s eyes flash red with rage, or while you’re waiting for someone to explain to you the different effects created by “I don’t care” and “I don’t mind”, this might be a good time to make a tactical retreat into your ‘foreign comfort zone’. Make an excuse, and try to make sure your body language reflects your true intentions, even if what comes out of your mouth doesn’t. If you smile and look like “that idiot foreigner”, you might just get away with it.

But I’m not advocating that you use this tactic forever. It’s just a useful vantage point from which to observe and remember what is and isn’t the done thing. You can be excused for saying or doing something wrong the first couple of times you visit your in-laws, but if you want to become part of the family you’ll have to adjust to their rules.

But that is a big ‘if’. We all have different motives for learning languages, and perhaps for some becoming a member of the family is of little interest or relevance. Sure, you’re an outsider to them and you might put your foot in it sometimes, but you can’t be accused of pretending not to be. Besides, you are sitting at the table, eating their food and having a conversation of sorts, so what does it really matter if there are the occasional crossed wires?  And what if you’re not even really there to meet the in-laws? After all, the other non-family members you’ve met at the table aren’t particularly bothered about whether your fork is in your left hand or your right.

And so we come to the difficult question of why we learn languages. As an English speaker, I’m fortunate that communicating is not always something I need to worry about. Nowadays it is true that you can make yourself understood in most places with some kind of English, and that means that I don’t need foreign languages in the same way that a non-English speaker might. In fact, just being able to communicate comes fairly low on my list of priorities. When I learn a language, it is always the in-laws that I have in mind. It’s not enough for me to just sit at the table, I want to become a member of the family. That means that I want to know what I sound like, I want to know about nuances and turns of phrase, and that I manage to cope every time I put my foot in it by seeing that as part of a long process leading to a point when I will be able to walk around my new family’s house with pristine clean shoes all the time. I use the ‘foreign comfort zone’ to make sure my hosts aren’t offended by my mistakes, but it’s never my intention to stay in there longer than I have to.

I believe that learning a language gives you an insight into how other people think. But that aspect of the process is diminished if you just speak your new language as you would your own. Yes, it might be easier to stay in your comfort zone, and no, perhaps doing so doesn’t really affect your ability to communicate with others around the world, but it does seem a great shame to simply put to one side the intricacies, individual quirks and personality traits that other languages can offer. When each language gives us such a broad, rich and fascinating range of levels on which to communicate, it seems a pity to just want to remain an outsider.

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