Plugging along with limited language skills

Similar to my previous post, I’m still thinking a lot about how we use our “limited” foreign language skills.  Recently I was in Vienna, Austria, where I had a chance to practice my German.  My German skills are basic, enough to get around and do some daily tasks, but not good enough to really be comfortable.  Add to that, since this was my first trip to Austria, there were tons of things that I didn’t know how to do in town.

Whenever you go to a city for the first time, there is an adjustment period when you have to figure out how to get to places, how to figure out the public transportation, where to buy necessities, what kind of food to try, check out what’s happening in town, etc.  Even in your native language, this adjustment period is difficult.  There is a part of me that loves to experience the newness of being in a place for the first time.  But there is also a part of me that finds it all stressful, although an enjoyable stress to be sure.

The main point of the post today is to remind ourselves that when talking in another language, we are going to have to GUESS a lot.  People will say things faster than we expect, they will use phrases that we don’t know, and we’ll hear vocabulary that we have not learned.  There are going to be tons of times when we have to go with the flow of the moment, infer things from the context, and simply GUESS at what they are saying.  We then react, and work through it.  For example, if something costs 13 and we heard 30, we give them 30, and then they tell us that it was really only 13.  Little by little we figure it out.  The point is, if we don’t guess at 30, we never get to the exchange.  Linguistics call this “negotiation of meaning”.  We actually have to go through the give and take, the exchange of information, and the narrowing down of the meaning.

What we probably don’t realize is that we actually do the same thing in our native language.  Much of our communication is based on reacting to what we think we heard, and then we make adjustments along the way.  For example, at dinner somebody might ask that you pass them the salt.  Even if you didn’t hear them correctly, you start passing things there way.  If you hand them the pepper, they will reaffirm that they really wanted the salt.  It happens all the time.  Bottom line:  It is OK to guess, in fact, it is required.

BTW, as an aside note,  I was amazed at how often during my 5 days in Vienna that as I opened my mouth to speak, I actually had to control myself to not say Chinese words.  There is something about the fact that since neither my German or my Chinese are strong enough to hold themselves on their own, and since I have been focusing so much on Chinese, it was actually hard to control. I can’t believe how many times I answered people with “dui, dui, dui.”  I mean, how hard can it be to say “ja” in German!  I’m sure that it didn’t help that there are a million Chinese tourists in Vienna.  I talked to a lot of Chinese tourists in Vienna too.

Note about the photo:  I enjoyed the street performers in Vienna.  A couple of times I was called out of the audience to participate in the performance.  This, btw, is nerve-wracking because I never knew what I was getting into and the whole time praying that I could understand what they were saying to me!





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