I felt the summer heat on my skin as I walked out onto the patio. I could see the mountains in the background! It was beautiful, but there was no time to admire them and besides, I’d be able to look at them later on anyway. I snapped out of it and got back to work. The restaurant was filling up and people needed to be served their food. I approached the table that my coworker had told me about and handed them menus and asked if they’d like to start with any drinks or just water. The man at the table looked kind of nervous for a second and then turned to his partner and then just stared at her as if he was waiting for something. My spidey senses tingled. I instantly realized that this man was not from here and also that he was staring at his partner because he was waiting for a translation! I stood there in anxious anticipation and excitement as I waited to hear what language it was.
His partner responded in Italian and then the guy’s face lit up with understanding and clarity. My excitement quickly turned to deep contemplation. “I haven’t spoken Italian in months… I’m going to be sooo bad. Not only are their virgin ears going to bleed when they hear my terrible Italian, but they’ll never understand me and it will probably just stress them out if I even try speaking it to them” I thought to myself. I decided to act quickly and banish the self defeating thoughts before they could actually do any harm and asked them in Italian if they spoke Italian. I clearly knew they could at this point, but I find that this question normally works as a very good ice breaker. “Si!” They responded. The man looked visibly relieved at this point because he knew he would no longer have to struggle or wait for translations.
I tried to explain a few things on the menu to them in Italian, but quickly realized how rusty my Italian had actually gotten, but I decided to push through the pain in the name of the polyglot grind! Alright, let’s be honest, there may have been a bit of a struggle, but there was no pain. I love pushing myself to speak different languages and this time was no different.
The guests ultimately enjoyed their time and meal and we had a little bit of time to talk afterwards. It was really cool and I could really feel how us sharing a common language allowed us to connect on a much deeper level. I love talking to people, so I try to connect with each guest as much as I can in the short time we have together, but this connection felt much deeper than the run of the mill small talk that normally occurs and it was refreshing.
This whole interaction made me realize something; My Italian is pretty bad now and I really struggled to speak it, but I was still able to understand their responses despite the fact that I really really struggled with the speaking part.
How on earth were we able to carry out 90% of the interaction in Italian then?
Stop reading now if you’re a perfectionist!
I’m warning you, don’t read any further because what I’m about to say will deeply offend you if you’re a perfectionist!
Don’t go any further
What ever… I warned you!
Perfection doesn’t really matter when it comes to speaking in a different language. The only thing that actually matters is whether or not you can get your message across and THAT is the subject of this post if you couldn’t tell from the title. Being able to conjugate a bunch of French verbs is cool and may help you pass a pop quiz. Having perfect or near perfect pronunciation is also pretty cool and may allow you to seem like a local for 5 seconds, but if you can’t get your message across, well… both these things stop being cool very quickly, don’t they?
Languages exist to facilitate communication. Always remember that! That notion is what got me through that lovely interaction with the Italian speaking couple. It didn’t matter that I was conjugating verbs incorrectly. It didn’t matter that I forgot to use formal Italian as opposed to informal Italian. The few Spanish words that slipped out also didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was the fact that they understood what I was saying and I was able to understand most of what they were saying. As a result of all of this, we were able to… you guessed it!… Effectively communicate! Yay!
It’s not what you say or how you say it!
When it comes to communication one could argue that what you say and how you say it doesn’t really matter if you’re still unable to effectively express your ideas and or get your point across. I’m not saying that these two things don’t matter at all because they both are fundamentally important aspects of communication. What I am saying, however, is that you can cut yourself some slack if you make a few basic mistakes when trying to express yourself in a foreign language. It’s not your native language and unless you’re the leader of a country, a few mistakes won’t be the end of the world!
The thing that matters most is whether or not you’re able to transmit what’s in your head into the other person’s head. That’s really all that matters. Ancient traders routinely met people who didn’t speak the same languages as them, but they were still able to find ways to communicate with each other and trade. Was their delivery perfect and without error? Nope, of course not. A lot of mistakes were definitely made, but it still worked. Do you really think a shoemaker living in the year 647 BCE cared if his customers conjugated their ancient Greek verbs properly? No, he or she just wanted to sell shoes. As long as the message was transmitted and money was earned, it was a good day. What the buyer said and how they said it were still fundamentally important aspects of the exchange, but the most important thing was that they were able to communicate, reach an agreement and then carry out the transaction. All that mattered to the shoe maker was whether or not he or she was successfully able to sell shoes and all that really mattered to the buyer was that they were able to get a good pair of shoes without getting ripped off. This has been my experience in our modern world too! People don’t generally care too much about the mistakes I make when speaking their language(s) as long as they can get their point across and I can also get mine across.
The train ride from Italian hell
It was a warm day in March and I was about to catch a train to Rome. I know hearing warm and March on the same sentence sounds weird to you if you live in Canada, but Italy doesn’t get anywhere near as cold as it does here. (At least in the places I visited). Anyway, it was going to be my first time in the city and I was super excited. I couldn’t believe I was going to be able to see the colosseum with my own eyes.
*Check out this post out if you’d like to read more about my travel mishaps, lessons and adventures.*
I was struggling to understand my ticket and was kind of lost, so I asked one of the security guards at the station, in broken Italian, where I was supposed to go. He pointed me in the right direction. I went down an escalator and began waiting for the train. If I remember correctly, my ticket said 10:35. At about 10:32, a train pulls up at the platform that was listed on my ticket. The train was heading to Rome, so I excitedly got on and sat down. The train started moving. I couldn’t believe it! In a couple hours, I’d be in Rome. The excitement grew as the train’s speed increased!
The train made a couple stops on the way to Rome and all the cities looked beautiful. I was about half way there when one of the transit security guards started walking through the train and checking tickets. I rummaged through my stuff and found my ticket and waited with it in my hand so I could give it to the guy as soon as he got to me. He checked a few more tickets and then it was my turn. I handed him the ticket and he looked at it. He seemed to look at mine a lot longer than he looked at everyone else’s. I began to get nervous. I didn’t understand what was going on. What could the problem possibly be? I paid for the ticket and had double checked everything. Everything should have been correct. I even got on on the right platform.
“You’re on the wrong train.” The man said. His words pierced my chest like the friend zone. “The wrong train…?”. I asked. “Yes” he said. I tried to explain how my ticket said “platform 19 at 10:35” and how I got on the exact same platform. He explained that there were two different trains; One at 10:32 and one at 10:35. Both were going to the exact same place and arriving at more or less the exact same time. I know, I know! To this very day, I still don’t understand the logic behind that. Anyway, I started panicking at this point and my Italian got worse and worse as I panicked more and more. It began to fail me, but I did my best to understand what the man was saying and did my best to explain my side of the story. I could normally hold my ground in Italian, but none of my course books talked about getting out of train tickets in Italy, so I was kind of stuck and at a loss for words.
I tried to explain to him that I was from Canada and that there’s normally more of a gap between train arrivals where I lived and how I’d never heard of two trains coming within 3 minutes of each other on the same track and most importantly that I didn’t understand Italian or the Italian train system perfectly. This man spoke no English at all, so I couldn’t even use it as a crutch. After a couple minutes, he told me that he was supposed to give me an 80 euro fine, but would reduce it to 15 euros because he knew that I didn’t do it on purpose and that I struggled with Italian.
If I hadn’t been able to get my message across in this situation, I would’ve ended up spending 65 more euros which is a lot of money for such a simple mistake. Once again, neither the officer nor I cared about whether or not my grammar was correct or whether I used formal or informal Italian. All that mattered in that situation was that we could both communicate our messages to each other effectively. All that honestly mattered to me was not having to pay 80 euros and I was able to avoid that through communication.
Communication gets better with time
Though I’m not religious, I almost feel blessed to be in an area that is frequented by so many Dutch tourists. I’ve been able to speak Dutch almost every day that I’ve been here. Dutch is one of my top 3 worst languages, so I was naturally very nervous about trying to take orders and serve people food in Dutch initially, but I decided to do it anyways. At first it was very hard, but that was to be expected. As long as I could communicate my message and express myself effectively without putting any strain on the customers and vice versa, then everything was ok. It worked and the customers loved that somebody took the time to learn their language and the connections I was able to make with some of the people were really cool! I even ended up hanging out with two Dutch guys I met at work. The idea of serving people in Dutch was scary, but the idea of hanging out in a group and only speaking Dutch was scarier. We ended up having fun and although I had to switch to English later on in the interaction, we held most of it in Dutch. The two guys were super cool and chill and it was a lot of fun. I made tons of mistakes when I spoke Dutch and they made a few mistakes when we switched to English, but none of that mattered. All we wanted to do was hang out and have fun and the fact that we were able to effectively communicate allowed that to happen.
That really motivated me and I continued to push myself to speak Dutch with all the Dutch customers that I served. It was still hard, but after a while, something magical happened!
It got easier! Forcing myself to communicate in Dutch everyday caused me to improve! My Dutch got better! The communication also got easier! Practice makes progress, remember? I was so busy enjoying the interactions and meeting interesting Dutch people that I forgot that I was subconsciously learning and improving the whole time.
Getting your message across is all that really matters at the end of the day!
As you can now see, communication and getting your message across is all that really matters at the end of the day. If your pronunciation is perfect and you can conjugate a few verbs, but can’t ask where the bathroom is when you have to pee the one time you left your phone with the translation app on it back at the hotel, then you’re going to end up in a pretty sticky (and wet) situation. Don’t be a perfectionist because everyone makes mistakes… even in their native languages! It’s normal and human. There is literally nobody on this planet that speaks any language perfectly 100% of the time! Learn your target language to a level that makes you feel happy and satisfied, but remember to focus on communication and not perfection. All that really matters at the end of the day is that you understand the person you’re talking to and that they understand you, so don’t beat yourself up for making mistakes, just make sure that you can get your point across.
Also when in doubt, try to remember that being able to effectively communicate in a different language despite my many grammatical errors got me out of an 80 euro fine in Italy. Maybe putting your self defeating beliefs on the side and focusing on communication rather than perfection will result in you saving some money and or having cool adventures too! Consistent practice and communication will ultimately lead you to fluency!
You got dis!