I thought my English was good when I first moved to New Zealand. But it turns out there’s a big difference between writing essays at school and having real-life interactions in another language. Eek!
Nevertheless, once you get over the initial pitfalls, and past a few awkward situations, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The secret is to never give up.
Group conversations! Initially a literary ping pong game that your frazzled brain tries to keep up with. By the time you’ve conjured up the perfect comment, the subject has changed (again).
Anxiety about telephone conversations because you still can’t quite make out what people are saying unless you can see their hand gestures and mouth moving.
Constantly walking into people on the street/sidewalk/doorway/stairwell because your ‘right side’ is now suddenly the wrong side.
Coming in for a handshake when they come in for a kiss on the cheek and your hand awkwardly pokes them in the chest.
Being mistaken for being rude because you don’t say ‘please’ after every second word (but that word doesn’t exist in my language! Truly!).
Knowing that in your own language you are in fact a well-spoken adult, but now with your suddenly diminished vocabulary and rickety grammar you’re somehow degraded to conversing like a pre-schooler – and your A+ in Danish literature will do little for you.
Coming home at the end of each day and feeling that your tongue feels physically tired from straining to pronounce new words. Who knew THAT could happen??
The only way is up
Working as a waitress during my first months in New Zealand I remember the first time someone ordered a ‘Danish’ off me (before I knew this to be the non-Danish term for wienerbrød). The incident involved me laughing loudly and pointing at a (very confused looking) customer: “Ha ha! You cheeky man!” Blank stares turned into awkwardness. I embarrassed myself a few times before the wienerbrød/Danish connection hit home. But! Embarrassment and rejection builds resilience right?
A similar situation unfolded when a patron at the aforementioned restaurant asked me to hold the ‘thyme’ – a sound I knew only as ‘time’. Brain having another fit. But what does she meeeaan?! More of those stares.
Someone else ordered a ‘flat white’ and I was left to figure out: A/ what it was altogether and B/ what was flat about it. Absolutely nothing as it turns out. Result: more discriminating looks clearly questioning the level of my intelligence.
Eureka, we’ve made it!
Two years into my New Zealand venture a Kiwi sitting next to me in a lecture at university turned to casually ask me how to spell ‘thoraco-lumbar fascia’. I was ecstatic. Not only did I know how to spell it, but my neighbour clearly thought my English skills were convincing enough that he believed I knew how to spell it! I could have moon-walked out of there.
Sometimes we all need to remember that every broken-sentenced foreigner is fluent in something! Whether it be engineering bridges or crafting Navajo flatbreads. Behind their incorrect grammar and shoddy pronunciation is most likely an individual adept and knowledgeable in something that’s just bursting to come out!