When I Caused the Cringe

*Daily Prompt

There are two occasions when I speak French perfectly: 1) when I’m dreaming, and 2) after my third glass of wine.

During my graduate studies in the quaint town Leuven, Belgium, I lived in a small flat above a coffee shop. The owner was a lovely middle-aged Jordanian man who spoke Arabic, English, Dutch and French. He’d switch languages with enviable ease for his patrons who came in ordering in Flemish, French, or English.  Without hesitating, he tended to their requests in the language they spoke.  I watched in awe.

My landlord and I, of course, dialogued in English, but one day I asked if we could converse in French. He made us some strong espresso, took a seat, lit a cigarette, and then signaled for me to begin. After my first few words his face contorted in pain from the sounds of my speech. He looked like he heard a cacophony of nails down a chalkboard made by cats fighting in an alley. I decided to end our session and switch back to English for the rest of our friendship.

I was/am able to read French; however, taking the time to speak it always proved to be a challenge. Living in Belgium brought many opportunities to practice, but whenever I did venture a try people either responded in English or with a look as though they’d smelled something bad. A fart. They looked at me like they smelled a giant menacing blast of fart.

To earn a bit of money I taught English at a Belgian corporation in Brussels. (Because of the European Union and globalization in general, many businesses invest in their employees learning English.)   At the end of a class one of the students encouraged me to say something in French.

I hesitated.

I spoke.

He was quiet for a moment.

Did I stun him with my skills? I waited with hope.

Finally he said, “Whoa! You have a thick American accent!”


My good friend from Romania and fellow philosophy student who had lived in Belgium longer than me said: “It took me a year of speaking Dutch before anyone would reply to me in something other than English. Keep practicing.”

Being the cause of a cringe due to an accent is something for which I am honestly grateful. The frustration of searching for the right word in a second language while in the throes of communicating taught me the importance of patience. There I was, a Ph.D. student in philosophy with the speaking capacity of a child in French, and people would sometimes view me as such.  Despite this I hold the experience dear.

Learning to communicate in another language is incredibly humbling. One must step outside of their comfort zone and be vulnerable. Mistakes are inevitable. Once the language begins to take root in the thinking process it is an amazing sensation. The world opens up. Objects seem different. Expression is different. Interaction is different. It’s like walking around in a parallel universe.

Returning to my home, southern California, I encounter people on a daily basis who are non-native English speakers.  Shifting into an alternate grammar structure, pronunciation, alphabet, and all the nuances of language is difficult; moreover, the endeavor deserves respect.  I’ve witnessed frustration and cringes on the faces of the native English speakers when they hear accents. “Speak English!”  Assumptions about intelligence come into play albeit unwarranted. I wish for the angry hearted to give communication in another language a go.

Because of my time trying to speak French I make a conscious effort to listen carefully as non-native English speakers reach into their repertoire of unfamiliar words for communication.  Now I cringe at the cringers!

About unsolicitedtidbits

Philosophy, books, coffee, Mexican food enthusiast. View all posts by unsolicitedtidbits

8 responses to “When I Caused the Cringe

  • Martha Kennedy

    It’s always better to speak the “target” language with people who cannot speak your first language. My Italian is perfectly serviceable, but Italians who speak English correct me rather than speaking to me. Having taught ESL I KNOW that fear of speaking is the biggest factor that held my students back. I’m SURE their classes taught them to fear making mistakes. Language is meant as a tool for communication, but that requires a receptive audience who is interested in what the other person has to say. I taught an amazing French man in his late 60s back in 1988. He’d flown experimental planes and had lived an incredible life but for NOTHING would he open his mouth and attempt English. He was too afraid to make mistakes…

    But…I stood in Milano Centrale in a huge crowd hoping to get onto the subway. A policeman said (in Italian), “I’m very sorry but there’s a strike. There are no subways or trams until 6 pm.” There were a couple of tall British girls in the crowd very shrilly saying, “Speak English! Speak English!” I went to them and explained the situation. They looked down at me (I’m 5’1″) and said, “Well, how do YOU know?” I just said, “I speak Italian. You can take a cab, but they will not be a subway or a tram for three hours.” The girls dismissed me completely and called out, “I want to speak to someone in charge. Someone who speaks English.”

  • unsolicitedtidbits

    I completely agree with you. It’s polite and even fun to speak the language of the land when visiting. I ran into the same problem as your student. My fear of sounding silly held me back from practicing for a long time. That’s why I do my best to be patient when non-native English speakers talk to me.

    Oh that experience in Italy sounds so frustrating! North Americans do have a tendency to demand English when in other countries. Cringe indeed.

    Thank you for commenting and reading. Cheers.

    • Martha Kennedy

      To set the record straight, the girls demanding English were British. The sole North American in that crowd was more or less speaking/understanding Italian — still, you’re right. There’s something about English speaking people…but maybe it’s because every bit of tourist literature says, “People speak English in France (Germany, Italy…) so you’ll have no problem communicating with the locals.” I cringe at the term, “the locals.”

      • unsolicitedtidbits

        I think I was too general and hard on North Americans. Yikes. We should promote more language learning 🙂 Cheers.

      • Martha Kennedy

        I completely agree! I’d like to see language classes that aren’t grammar based in which people are encouraged to speak, get a sense of confidence that they can say things and then, on their own, become interested in saying things correctly. I was really intrigued by the person I am in Italian compared to the person I am in English. Your point about kind of getting a new “self” because of the altered values and way of thinking in another language is so right on. It’s also nice not being excluded from the world around you when you travel! Salute!

  • http://theenglishprofessoratlarge.com

    It is difficult to learn a new language, at least for me it is.When I went to Italy, I found that sometimes I could get by with a little Spanish if the words were similar. When I as in the Peace Corps,I had to learn Slovak, and I was fearful of speaking it incorrectly,but my Slovak friends encouraged me through instant lessons and mutual laughter.

  • Gert Loveday

    I love this post! I like to think my French isn’t bad but all the same when I go into, say, a Post Office in France I can’t help noticing the expression of extreme attention combined with apprehension the teller adopts when I start speaking. And I completely relate to the experience of being treated like a fool no matter how many degrees you have. I wonder if the people who say of newcomers, “Why don;t they learn to speak Engosh?; have any idea just how hard it is to become fluent in a nother language if you didn;t start as a child.
    And thanks for liking our “Writers’ Habits” post. We’ll be back to browse your site.

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