How to not get lost in translation

I took French throughout high school and the first two years of college, and I loved Paris the first time I visited, so it seemed like a no-brainer to study abroad there. When I learned that I would attend a French university and that all my classes would be in French, I wasn’t worried.

“Piece of cake,” I thought. “I’ve taken it for six years. It’s only a matter of time before I get there and become fluent.”

Oh mon dieu, was I wrong.

Most foreign language classes are taught by Americans who speak the language very well. Because my classes fell into this category, I was blown away by the sheer speed at which a French person speaks. As soon as I stepped off the plane, a lost French woman approached me.

“Excusez-moi mademoiselle, je suis…”

And that’s all I caught.

I politely managed to shake my head and excuse myself, angry that I couldn’t even understand a simple question. Classes were going to be a treat.

As I began to attend classes and spend most nights attempting to write the thirteen papers I was assigned, I became jealous of my friends in their English-speaking countries. My friends in London, Dublin, Galway and Sydney were praised for their knowledge and were the top of their class. I, on the other hand, was meek, physically shrinking in my seat when asked a question.

I won’t lie – studying in a foreign country in a foreign language makes life more difficult. Normal tasks like going to the grocery store take twice as long, as you squint to determine if you are buying laundry detergent or dishwashing soap. You most likely won’t be the star of your class, and writing an essay may reduce you to tears. But by the end, you will get better at the language, and you will know you challenged yourself.

By the end of my semester, I came up with a couple rules that can work in any country where you are not fluent in the language.

Smile: I can’t express how important it is to smile, especially in Paris. Parisians are not known for their warm personalities and welcoming nature. Some appeared visibly annoyed when I asked them a question. However, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to be rude if you‘re beaming at them. I played up the innocent, friendly girl thing as much as I could because I was more likely to elicit an actual response, as opposed to a sneer. So no matter who you’re asking, no matter what you are asking about, no matter how annoyed they appear, smile, smile, smile!

Gesture: Don’t get out of hand and start wildly miming each word, but hand gestures can help convey what you are trying to say. Sometimes, even if natives want to help, our accent, pronunciation and general word confusion make it impossible for them to understand. Adding some small hand gestures to the conversation can help you have a longer, more authentic conversation with a native.

Don’t Assume They Speak English:
This is a very important rule. In Europe and other parts of the world, Americans have a bad reputation as being obnoxious and rude. If you assume they speak English, they may become offended and stereotype you as the “typical American” the way we stereotype them as snobby. Truthfully, most people in France speak English, but they appreciate your effort if you at least attempt the language. If you begin to struggle, they will often kindly switch to English. As I approached more Parisians with this “try your best in French” attitude, I found more and more people to be very friendly, completely disproving the idea that all French people are mean.

Do Not Make Up Words: False cognates are words that are the same but have different meanings depending on the language, and they can make a pleasant conversation instantly turn sour if you unintentionally offended someone. If you don’t know a word, try to describe the word instead of making up what you think it would be. I made this mistake a couple of times during my semester, and it left me extremely embarrassed. During one casual conversation with a French student, we were discussing the aquarium in Paris. I attempted to tell her that when I was younger, I went to an aquarium show and got to kiss a sea lion – but I made a couple mistakes and ended up telling her that I once “had sex with a sea lion.” I instantly went from the fun, new, foreign student to a creepy animal abuser.

But the best advice I can leave you with is to be patient and understanding. There will be times where you don’t understand what is going on, but if you follow these rules, people will be more likely to want to give you a helping hand. Bonne chance with your travels!

Photo by Jeremy G. (Jayme Rose)

Did you have any troubles while studying abroad in a non-English speaking country? Where did you go and how did you cope?

Kerry Ricciato I'm a recent graduate of Boston College and now work in the broadcast department of an advertising agency outside Boston. I write for the lifestyle section of TNGG and enjoy theater, fashion, dance, and traveling. You can usually find me getting sucked into the YouTube "related videos" vortex. Twitter: @KRicci89

View all posts by Kerry Ricciato

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