So apparently a quarter of Brits are nervous about speaking another language when they’re abroad, and 40% of us are embarrassed by our language skills.
These conclusions come from a study by the British Council, which surveyed 2,000 British adults. While 67% of respondents believed it’s important to learn a few words of the local language before a trip, it seems not many of us are putting that into practice when we actually get there.
There are a number of very legitimate reasons for this fear:
‘What if I get it wrong and everyone laughs at me?’
‘What if I say my bit perfectly, but then don’t understand the response?’
‘What if they just don’t understand what I’m trying to say?’
‘What if I open my mouth and my mind goes blank?’
We all hate the idea of making a fool of ourselves, and it doesn’t help that the Internet is full of stories about people who said ’embarazada’ (pregnant) when they meant to say ’embarrassed’. (Probably more embarrassing than the thing you were embarrassed about in the first place, ironically.) But how many of those people would make the same mistake again? I’m guessing zero.
It sounds like a cliché, but sometimes making a mistake really is the best way to learn. And in my experience, even if you do get things wrong, and even if people laugh, it won’t be mean laughter – and they’ll probably go out of their way to explain where you went wrong, so you know for next time.
Most likely, whoever you’re speaking to will probably be pleasantly surprised that you gave it a try in the first place; in most countries, not much is expected of British or American visitors, so any time we make the effort, it’s appreciated. (Just look at the response to Mark Zuckerberg speaking Mandarin – even though he was very hesitant, and made lots of mistakes, the audience loved it.)
What’s the point?
But at least feeling anxiety over speaking another language shows an interest in trying, and a desire to get it right; the fear of making mistakes is what’s holding us back. The far bigger problem is the number of people who believe there’s no point at all in learning another language, because ‘everyone speaks English’, ‘every time I try, people reply to me in English’ and ‘just knowing a few words won’t help’.
It’s true – last year, when I visited Italy, everyone could tell instantly that I was British, and even if I started a conversation in Italian, they would generally reply to me in English. But here’s the thing: though it’s very easy to seize that lifeline and lapse back into English, you don’t have to. I had very little Italian, but I was determined not to give up, even though the opportunity was there – and the waiters and shop staff I was trying to speak to soon caught on and reverted to Italian. Our conversations mostly consisted of one-word sentences, but at least they were Italian words, and we were able to understand each other. And I was pretty proud of myself afterwards – much more than I would have been if I’d had the same conversation in my native language.
As for everyone speaking English, that’s clearly not true – and it shouldn’t matter anyway. The comments on the BBC article about the British Council study show that we expect those who visit the UK to speak English – so why should it be any different when we travel to another country? Even if you don’t need to learn a language, does that mean you shouldn’t?
And finally, it’s true that knowing a few words wouldn’t help you if you had to go and close a business deal in French, or teach maths in China. But if you’re just going on holiday for a week, the chances are that as long as you’re able to check in to your hotel, order a meal and buy a bus ticket, you’re probably covered – though of course it will depend where you’re travelling to.
This, of course, is the whole idea that uTalk is built on. Because sometimes, just being able to say hello in another language is enough to make someone smile. And why wouldn’t we want to do that?
So let’s be bold, and show off our language skills. And let’s see if we can bring those percentages down in time for the next study.
A couple of weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg shocked the world by taking part in a 30-minute Q&A session in Mandarin Chinese. And we were all super impressed.
It was obvious, even to a non-Mandarin speaker, that he wasn’t completely fluent, but he managed to keep going for almost the full half hour, and his audience at Tsinghua University in Beijing seemed to enjoy his jokes, and his efforts at speaking their language. And it all sounded pretty good to me.
Which just goes to show how much I know. Not too long after the video appeared online, Isaac Stone Fish, Asia Editor at Foreign Policy Magazine, gave his assessment of the Facebook CEO’s efforts: ‘in a word, terrible’. The headline of the piece was, ‘Mark Zuckerberg speaks Mandarin like a seven-year-old’. Ouch.
Since the article was published, people have been jumping into the debate left, right and centre with their own opinions on how he did. James Fallows, writing for The Atlantic, said that Zuckerberg spoke Mandarin ‘as if he had never heard of the all-important Chinese concept of tones’, whereas Mark Rowswell, a Canadian comic who’s fluent in Mandarin and famous throughout China, took to Twitter with a more balanced view.
To clarify, Mark Zuckerberg's Chinese isn't very good. He's incredibly fluent for a Fortune 500 CEO. Which angle do you choose to take?
— 大山 Dashan (@akaDashan) November 1, 2014
Meanwhile, Kevin Slaten, program coordinator at China Labor Watch, was more concerned about the message being given out by Stone Fish’s article. Mark Zuckerberg, after all, is used to bad press and is hardly likely to be put off by a few negative comments. But Slaten looks at the bigger picture: ‘What is Stone Fish, a “China expert”, telling these students of Chinese when he is tearing down a notable person for speaking non-standard Mandarin? He’s telling them, “you’ll be laughed at”’.
Personally, I don’t know how good Zuckerberg’s Mandarin was. It sounded good to me, and as someone who really struggles with nerves when speaking another language, especially to native speakers, I’m pretty much in awe that he had the confidence to give it a go, particularly since it was a Q&A session, not a prepared presentation. (Not that I think Mark Zuckerberg is particularly short on confidence, but you know what I mean.) Had the audience sat there shaking their heads, looking confused or angry, things might be different, but they clearly appreciated the effort he’d put in, so who am I to judge?
Making mistakes is part of learning a language. Everyone has a funny or embarrassing story about a time they used the wrong word, or – in the case of languages like Mandarin or Thai – got the tone slightly incorrect and ended up saying something completely different than what they intended. There’s no shame in it, and in my experience, people appreciate the effort made. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have to do that interview in Mandarin. He could have done what was expected of him and spoken English. And maybe he messed it up, but I bet everyone in that audience went home with a smile on their face (even if it was more from amusement than anything else).
Isaac Stone Fish has since responded to the criticism of his criticism, stating that his issue was with the media outlets who described Zuckerberg’s Mandarin as fluent, when it wasn’t. Which is fair enough, and maybe some of his comments were taken out of context, but I think the main point stands.
There’s a quote by Abraham Lincoln: ‘Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.’ I don’t agree, at least not in the context of language learning. I say speak out, remove all doubt, have a laugh about it, and then learn from the experience. Otherwise, how will you ever get any better?
So let’s give Mark Zuckerberg – and every other language learner on the planet – a break.
What did you make of the Facebook boss’s Mandarin? Have you ever surprised people by speaking their language?