Working at a French communications agency means that I'm in the minority, linguistically speaking. It was one of the challenges I purposely set myself when making a career change last year. Why? Because I couldn't think of a better way to move outside of my comfort zone...
Take today, when I completely misunderstood my manager's response to a question I asked in French, which I then communicated to the client in English. Cue some backpedalling and scrabbling to clarify on my part. This is not the first time, although usually it happens with my colleagues at the agency. The best way I can describe it is that I read and hear words very literally, often missing the real meaning behind what people are communicating.
Picture this - the same agency, about a month after I had started. I enter the lift and find myself face to face with one of the founders. He asks me a question, my focus shifting from the warm pain au chocolat in my hand to the French language. I ask him to repeat the question because I didn't understand. He kindly does so. Hmmm... I'm still not sure but feel fairly confident he asked where I live so start describing my commute. He interrupts me to repeat the question one more time. The penny finally drops just as the lift arrives at my floor: he is asking if I am settling into the agency (I'd confused "tu t'habitues" with "tu habites où ?" ) I manage an enthusiastic "ah, oui !!!!!!!!" before the doors close. Facepalm.
There's always that split second in these situations as to whether my credibility / professionalism appears shaky. Do colleagues understand this is a genuine mistake or do they think I'm a bit stupid? In the workplace however, I try to carefully consider before responding / contributing, out of fear that I may have the wrong end of the stick. Were the mishap to take place amongst French friends I'd still feel vulnerable, but less so.
Sharing with other expat friends though, there's no shame as we're all in the same boat. It's good to have a laugh about your latest muck-up! One of my favorite memories of a language mishap has to be Lynn, my American room mate during my year abroad in the Dordogne : on being accosted at the exit of our local supermarket, for a bottle of milk she'd previously purchased, she bust out "Je l'ai acheté demain", which translates as "I bought it tomorrow."
In my native language, I wouldn't be surprised to hear friends describe me as a "chatterbox". With an opinion on pretty much anything - perhaps less so politics or geography - I like to communicate, be helpful to others and get a sense for the person that I'm talking to. Perhaps it would be better to take a leaf out of David Sedaris' book and simply say "D'accord" every time I don't understand French, but we all know I lack both his wit and charm!
Instead I tell myself to take it day by day, to celebrate the small victories. This is the price you pay for living in another country, speaking another language and paying next to nothing for delicious wine. I take comfort reminding myself I'm not the only one - Lauren Collins and Emma Beddington have been in the same place! I laugh myself silly reading "Me Talk Pretty One Day" whilst enjoying a glass of red Burgundy. Life could be worse right?
In the spirit of solidarity, I'd love to hear your language mishaps so please feel free to share : ) Lou xxxxx