I aspire to speak a foreign language fluently. I’ve been aspiring for some time and so far I have a muddle that gets me by some of the time in some places. I have just enough basic vocabulary and brazenness to be the cause of many language failures:
1. The classic: being looked down on by a French speaker. Despite not really knowing French, I decided to casually ask for tickets to the castle in Luxembourg City in the local language. Approaching the window and holding up two fingers I, rather coolly, said trios (three). The guy behind the counter then rolled his eyes at me and asked, in English, if I meant “two.”
2. Mispronouncing foreign words and then lying about it. I embarrassingly used the French work chic, but pronounced it as “chick” instead of “sheek.” I blame the brand of tight jeans everyone wore to my elementary school in the 1980s for this mistake (see “Chic Jeans” ad below). Despite this excuse, it is still wrong. As I made the mistake in front of only Europeans, I covered it up by lying and saying that “chick” is the way Americans always pronounce chic.
3. Inserting Spanish into Mandarin and visa versa. Unlike French, I did actually study Spanish in school and can correctly say a few things. So when I started studying Mandarin, I instinctively inserted Spanish words to fill gaps in my Mandarin. So, for example, I’d say pero for “dog” instead of gou in the middle of a Chinese sentence. Fortunately the Chinese, unlike the French, are very kind and were usually just pleased I could say much of anything at all.
Somewhere along the way my brain started processing Mandarin better than Spanish. This was, rather unluckily, around the same time we moved from China to Europe and starting taking vacations in Spain. I then had the reverse problem of plugging Mandarin into Spanish sentences. So I’d frequently say things like yi dian dian instead of un poco for “a little bit.”
4. Cantonese is not just “sing-song-y” Mandarin. In Hong Kong, I’m a new learner of Cantonese, which is just similar enough to Mandarin to be a little easy and also very confusing. My biggest Mandarin/Cantonese muddle so far was with two hotel cleaners yesterday. They very sweetly starting chatting to me in body language and Cantonese sprinkled with English about my kids. The basic Mandarin/Cantonese problem quickly reared its head: some words are exactly the same (tricking my brain into thinking and speaking in Mandarin) and some words are completely different (leading the cleaners to wonder what kind of weird mixed up language I was trying to speak). I was basically speaking to them in Mandarin with a sing-song-y Cantonese lilt added to the end of every sentence. They smiled sweetly, obviously thought I was nuts, and quickly switched to their own basic Mandarin to get us through.
5. Full circle: making a mistake with “two” in Cantonese (rather than French). To my ears, the Mandarin number one sounds almost exactly the same as the Cantonese number two. One is a high tone and one is a low tone, but it’s still very, very easy to mix up when you’re trying to think on your toes. I’ve already made this mistake several times, but no one rolled their eyes, I just received less change back than expected.