Désolé, je ne comprends pas, je suis anglais…
Words of shame from any self-identifying polyglot. Nonetheless, I found myself stuttering them out in a crammed Paris branch of fnac on a Saturday afternoon, befuddled and bewildered by a particularly opaque queuing system. A harassed and exhausted assistant had muttered some question that went totally over my head in the mêlée, and flustered, I admitted defeat.
Luckily, a very kind fellow shopper overheard the confusion, and stepped in with a simplified and friendly “carte bancaire?“. The kindness was especially benevolent since my saviour didn’t immediately switch to English – the ultimate polyglot shame. What a considerate way to help, I thought – to support my use of the language, rather than my failure in it.
Un coup anglais
In any case, the breach of flow did bruise my ego a little. That’s despite an insistence that French is my low stakes language, my weak ‘extra’ that I’m happy to just get by in. I shouldn’t really care. But still, why didn’t I reach for support phrases instead, a polite “pardon?” or “répétez-vous, s’il vous plaît“? And most of all, why, blurt out my nationality, as if it were some excuse for not understanding French properly? It’s like the biggest faux pas in the book.
The fact is, when there are multiple distractions in the heat of the moment, brains do struggle. It’s completely normal. We reach for whatever is easiest, whatever bridges the gap most quickly. But, as I’ve said many times, beating yourself up about it is an equally poor language learning strategy. What is a good strategy is spotting when you do err towards self-flagellation, and employing a bit of self-kindness and consideration out ‘in the field’.
So what did I do after this particular stumble?
I found a branch of Paul – an eatery where I know my French will work more than decently – and treated myself, en français, to a coffee and pastry. Basic stuff, but it topped my confidence levels back up, and made me appreciate how situational conditions are as much, if not more, responsible for our missteps as any lack of knowledge.
And, by the time I took my seat at Matt Pokora’s fabulous 20 years concert, I was gallicising with the best of them again. You should have seen me mouthing along to Tombé like a native (or perhaps rather like the reluctant churchgoer struggling to remember the hymns).
It’s appropriate that Matt took his last name from the Polish for humility, and practising that – at least acknowledging that we are all fallible – is no bad thing for a polyglot.