cup-of-coffee

Mental blocks when speaking languages

The other week it happened again. It was a sunny afternoon, one of the first we’ve had this year, so I decided to go to one of my favourite cafés in downtown Budapest and do my work there. It’s a nice, relaxing place with a good vibe, comfortable chairs, good WiFi and nice coffee. I like it so much that I usually go at least once or twice a week. Every time I get the same thing: a large Americano and a large soda water. Situations like this are one of the few opportunities I really get to use my Hungarian regularly, so I always make sure I take advantage of them.

But this time something happened. As I was standing in the queue for the counter, I felt an odd sensation. The ground seemed to disappear from beneath my feet and the entire café began to swirl. My breathing got faster and I became tense. The conversation between the person in front of me and the waitress echoed loudly around my head and I almost felt the need to grab onto a nearby stool for support. As I tried to work out what was happening, it dawned on me that this sudden sickness had a single cause: I had no idea how to place my order in Hungarian.

coyote-coffee-deliOn reflection, the worst aspect of this whole scenario was the shock of it. I’d been in Hungary long enough now to know how to order things, and I’d been doing it every day without a hitch. But for some reason this time the words completely escaped me. I opened my mouth, but none came out. When I got to the front of the queue I could barely manage more than “Americano. Soda. Köszönöm.” then I was done. Then I hated myself even more. The waitress, full of smiles and chit chat with the person before, suddenly turned to stone on being barked at in this way. She scowled, typed everything into the machine, and then tapped a sharp, red-chipped fingernail at the total shown on the screen for me to pay.

There are lots of different ways of thinking about moments like these. Basically I’d had a blip, a little mental block that had stopped me from being able to speak. For a moment there I was simply overwhelmed, I felt completely out of my comfort zone, and my instinct was to be defensive and hide behind my monosyllabicism. As a result, the waitress interpreted my communication as rude, and was rude back. I hadn’t meant to be rude. I actually felt quite vulnerable and unhappy, so I found her rudeness unnecessary. All of this resulted in a negative language interaction – a little grudge that for the few seconds that it lasted I would hold against the whole of Hungary and everybody in it.

Several things had frustrated me. The first was that my Hungarian is still little more than functional. Despite being here for so long and using and hearing it every day, Hungarian is still not much more than a mode that I go into when I need something. It’s not a language in which I can express myself and connect with people – I simply don’t speak it well enough yet. For now I’m forever resigned to being that shifty looking guy barking pre-learned phrases and avoiding eye-contact in case it leads to further conversation which I won’t be able to keep up in and therefore my true identity as a foreigner – an imposter – will be revealed.

The second is that I’m so aware of how painful it is to function like this. I don’t like being rude to people. When I go home to London one of the first things I notice is how much easier all shop and café interactions are. I know when to smile, which phrase to use to get the tone just right, and I can read the other person like a book. I know exactly how English people work, what they’re thinking, whether I’ve offended them or if they’re just having a bad day. But I can’t do that here, and this is not just about language, but about culture too. And that, unfortunately, can take a whole lifetime to master.

So much communication is lost along these lines. Very few non-native speakers ever reach a point when they can fully understand every nuance of what they are or aren’t saying, and very few native speakers have enough experience of language learning to give them the benefit of the doubt. Whenever people return from trips abroad, almost without fail they will complain about the rudeness of the ‘locals’. It all comes down to the same issue – one person didn’t say the right thing, so another didn’t get the right message. Without any malice being meant at all, that person leaves with a negative language experience, a blow to their confidence, and a really bad impression.

Entrance to Budapest’s historic M1 metro

When learning a language, these kinds of problems are almost unavoidable. If you’re learning a language in an immersed environment, then you’re at risk of coming across them all the time. The first step towards dealing with the problem is accepting that it exists, and will continue to exist. The second is trying to see the funny side of it.

I consider myself an educated, fully functioning adult, but when I first came to Hungary my communication skills were suddenly worse than those of a two year old. Desperately trying to buy a train ticket, I was reduced to helplessly flapping about, trying to cobble together the few words of Hungarian I knew to ask “Where buy? Where buy? Ticket where buy?!” I was using overexaggerated intonation, ridiculous body language, and anything, just to try and make sense. To some extent, all language learning comes down to this paradox: highly intelligent, motivated and accomplished individuals’ whose communicative abilities are reduced to the level of a toddler, battling to function and express themselves as if they were adults. When it was me in that situation, the only alternative to finding this and the reactions I was getting from people utterly hilarious, would probably have been to lock myself away somewhere and never say anything to anyone again.

If nothing else, dedicating your life trying to speak other people’s languages is a sure way to guarantee you’ll have plenty of comedy and stories to tell. But unfortunately not everyone sees it like that. The infamous ‘plateau stage’, when most of these fears float to the surface and prevent you from making further progress, is where I tend to start working with most of my students. Despite having learned so much, they come to me frustrated at how unfluent they feel. When they hit a vocabulary block in their German, they often errupt into a flow of florid and advanced English just to make their point and restore their pride. My job is to take them a step back, make them think carefully about what they want to say, and show them they can find a way to say it with the words that they know. Once they’re at a stage when they feel comfortable with just speaking and the ‘plateau’ has been overcome, the time to move up into the advanced stages begins.

Just remember, like with everything, these kinds of problems are shared by everyone. Recently I had to go to the Greek embassy here to apply for a new passport. Using my Greek in such an official setting with educated speakers always makes me uneasy, and this time I felt very tense. I walked in, awkwardly greeted the official at her desk, took a seat, and started dreading the moment when I’d be asked something I didn’t understand or say something I hadn’t quite meant. The official continued filling in some papers on her desk without looking up. Just at that moment, the cleaning woman popped in to ask (in Hungarian) if she wanted anything from the shop. The official froze.

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