Smashing the Language Barrier – By Zoe Eager

Trying and failing to blend in with the locals

It’s pretty ridiculous that, even though I study languages, I have a fear of addressing native speakers in their own language. This originated during my time in France, actually, when every attempt I made at speaking the native tongue got shot down before I could say so much as merci. By shot down I don’t actually mean berated for trying, I just mean rebuffed by being replied to in English; and, if you have ever experienced this phenomenon, you’ll know that, while it sounds innocuous enough, it is shockingly effective at undermining you confidence. What did I do? you’ll wonder. Was it my pronunciation? Did I conjugate something incorrectly? Was it my inflection?

And above all, the eternal student abroad question: Am I so bad at this that I was incomprehensible, or were they just pretending to not understand me because I’m foreign?

It has to be one of the two, and to this day I’m not sure which one is worse.

Now, I know that this isn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be, and that my motto, especially at the time should have just been try try again. But, at the time, I didn’t.

What started as a fear of trying morphed into a deep fear of failure that was absolutely imminent; after all, there was no way for me to speak perfect French out of the gate, and there was no way for me to even improve without trying. But of course, being something of an overanalyzer, whenever I spoke to someone in French and was replied to in English, all I heard was, “No matter how bad my English is, it is infinitely better than listening to you butcher my language for one more eardrum-splitting moment”.

So, for a while at least, I stopped trying. Which, of course, was the worst move I could have made, and even at the time, I knew it, but I couldn’t help it.

That all changed when I went to intern in Paris for a summer. Not because the Parisians are such warm, helpful, nonjudgemental people (they’re famous for being the exact opposite, in fact); it was because my boss didn’t speak a word of English.

Actually that’s not strictly true; he could quote a movie line or two. But conversation-wise, it was either speak French, or don’t speak.

So I did; I had no other choice. And believe me when I say it paid off.

At the end of the summer I had completely conquered my fear of speaking to French people; in the words of my former boss, Ze failure was not being ze options.

So I was rather surprised when these old feelings of fear and anxiety followed me to Florence, especially considering how much more receptive the Italians are in general of foreigners attempting to speak their language. Florence, like Paris, is an extremely international city, and most of the people you meet will have some level of English – at least, enough to ask, “For here or to go?” when you take a stab at ordering a panino in Italian.

Putting my degree to good use by reading Harry Potter in Italian. In public.

It can be disheartening, believe me, I know. And still to this day, I fall into the trap of thinking, Ok, I’m going to study all night, and tomorrow, I won’t be tricked into speaking any more English.

But of course, it doesn’t work like that. Making mistakes in a language is inherent in learning a language – there’s no way around it, it is completely and utterly unavoidable. But slowly, as you try and fail, and try again, even if you’re success rate at making yourself understood is only one in ten tries (or one in fifty, or one in a million, or whatever), even if you’re speaking Italianglish, or Fritalian, or Spanglish with some random Italian words chucked in for good measure, the best thing to do is just to speak – it doesn’t matter if you make sense, just get in the habit of speaking. I’m still working on not taking my mistakes seriously; I probably always will. But I know that no matter how anxious making mistakes makes me, my anxiety is ten times worse when I don’t try at all, and then run through the horrible fantasy scenario of arriving back home, still at learning Italian square one.

So, for everyone in the same position as me, just know that we’re all in the same boat. Say what you can in Italian, and then switch back to English for a few words, or ask how to say something and then repeat it back until you have one more sentence under your belt; they add up, slowly but surely, and even learning a language sentence by broken sentence is better than immediately reverting back to English with the mentality that it’s better to be comfortable speaking than to be uncomfortable trying.


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