Nod and Smile: The Struggles of a Language Student Abroad

I am sure that most language students share this problem. We spend so long learning long vocab lists and perfecting our use of the pluperfect subjunctive that all we really want to do when talking is show this off.
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Near my house, there is an Italian coffee shop run by Romans. At least, I think they're Romans. I go there every day for my morning cappuccino, and know them all well enough to shake hands warmly and give a friendly ciao as I pass by. Yet somehow I don't know anything about them. Every time I start a longer conversation, my mind starts to drift: Was that a subjunctive? Do I have an accent? I know that I should understand everything that's going on, yet somehow in my sentences, long constructions designed to show off my grammar knowledge and vocabulary, I forget to actually communicate.

I am sure that most language students share this problem. We spend so long learning long vocab lists and perfecting our use of the pluperfect subjunctive that all we really want to do when talking is show this off. I don't care about the history of this fountain; did you know I know the word for hornet? When we focus on talking instead, this grammar is forgotten. Everything starts to take feminine word endings and every preposition is "at/to." Whenever I talk to Italians, I hope any English friends with me don't pick up on the slightly confused expression of the beleaguered Italians. Recently, I went to an Italian beer festival. I couldn't express well that I wanted to move a table, so instead just moved it myself then looked at the barman, shrugged and said "look at this chaos!". I then spent the rest of the evening wondering whether caos is masculine or feminine.


Moving abroad is less about learning the language and more about learning to act like a normal human. You slowly forget all your obscure, useless words, and start to learn to talk about saucepans and pasta. Still, however, occasionally your inner literature nerd comes out and gives you away as a fraud. I can talk for an hour confidently about the economy and make jokes that people laugh at (sympathetically?), but then suddenly someone asks me what I'm doing at the weekend and it turns out I'm going to "go and try to maximize my use of the dwindling time because if I were in England I shouldn't have had such a magnificent opportunity. You understand?" Then I flee, tail between my legs, a sheep who's discarded his wolf's clothing. Last month I was invited to a talk and a meal by a cardinal who had recently released a book about the role of God in nature. Out of characteristic English-person-abroad awkwardness, I went. It was a mistake. I spent half an hour telling the cardinal's assistant how in Oxford we had chapels that were similar to Roman Catholic churches. At least, I tried to. What I actually did was talk about how Anglican hats are quite like Catholic hats for a solid half hour. ("Our college's hat is quite grand. It has its own personalised smell.") As a man of God, the assistant's bewildered expression was very sympathetic.

Jokes are another linguistic minefield. I speak mediocre French, yet not well enough to make puns. As such, all my humour is slapstick or irony. Irony comes across as mean. Slapstick makes you the weird English guy who's reenacting a scene from Monty Python that was probably funnier in England in the 70s. There is no way to win except settling into your role as the token boring English person. My best French conversation ever was with a guy who asked me all my GCSE oral exam questions. I told him my career ambitions, where I go to school and all about the economy. Fortunately, the conversation finished before he could ask tricky questions like "What are you doing in France? Why are you in my car?"

Pure Italian style.

And then there are misunderstandings. The standard response to not fully understanding a phrase in another language is a nod and a knowing "si." This means you accidentally sign up to a lot of things, as if the world is one big careers fair. People on their year abroad have adventures due to linguistic incompetence. I once had to hitch a ride at 3 am after I got a little lost on a cycling trip. I had a pleasant conversation with the man in the big SUV who gave me a lift, but in retrospect what I thought was a chat about pro cycling could easily have been a chat about how he hated cyclists.

As my language improved, these adventures became less dangerous and more cringingly awkward. I decide fairly arbitrarily when to use formal and informal tenses, based on factors such as my mood, the time of day and how tall the other person is. In my local coffee shop, I started calling one person by the formal and another by the informal without thinking, thus unintentionally creating a coffee shop class structure. The only way out of this awkwardness will be to start the dreaded conversation with them about what tense to use (imagine asking someone if they're your friend or just an acquaintance). I once got told by someone I was addressing informally to use the formal, and the resulting discomfort rendered me unable to speak Italian for another hour.

Being a languages student is challenging and filled with mishaps that are much more fun in retrospect. If we ever look calm in conversation, it's because we're desperately focussing on finding the one word that will avoid making the situation difficult. That said, being able to travel and interact with other cultures is a great privilege and studying languages is a way to get to know amazing people and amazing places. After you've confused the word for 'elbow' with the word for 'womb' a few times and driven round a roundabout the wrong way once or twice, you're all set to have some great, unexpected adventures.

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