I still can’t get over the fact that there’s a freakin’ Pirate Ship inside of West Edmonton Wall. And an indoor amusement-park. Welcome to North America!
Amanda from Living in another language just wrote a hilarious post about the difficulty of living in Korea without speaking Korean and it immediately made me think of my time as a Foreign Exchange student in Canada. I’ve wanted to write about this topic for a while and I took this as a sign that the time had finally come.
I know the majority of my readers have roots in English-speaking countries – and I don’t. I was born and raised in Germany and for the most part of my life, German was the only language I really spoke. I started studying English in Sixth Grade and was pretty good at it, but if you have ever learned a foreign language then you know that there’s a big difference between using a language in a class room and out on the street.
So when I went to Canada at sixteen, I had studied English for five years. I could read novels in English and watch movies and while I wouldn’t understand every single word, I understood enough to get by without problems. I knew that I wasn’t fluent, but I also knew that I wouldn’t feel totally lost upon arrival.
And while that proved to be right, it sure didn’t save me from making my fair share of mistakes! I have made so many during my time, but there are some that particularly stuck with me, because they were either too funny or strange and just really exemplify how you can only really learn a language in a country where it’s the native language.
#1 Receipt/ Recipe
I took me a long time to figure out that there was a difference between those two words. And with difference I mean that I had no clue the word ‘recipe’ even existed. I just assumed that receipt was used for both meanings. So every time I wanted to bake, I would ask my host mother for a receipt and in turn receive some strange look. The circumstances made it clear what I was talking about, but only during the baking time at Christmas did we figure out that my expression was due to not knowing that there were two different words. Once I knew that a recipe includes baking instructions while a receipt is something you receive at the Grocery Store, my world was a bit clearer.
#2 Grocery Store/ Supermarket
Speaking of Grocery Stores… before I came to Canada I had never heard this word before. When you learn English in Germany, you usually learn British English. And while I knew that the accent in North America was different, I wasn’t really aware that the difference in language also persisted in the vocabulary. Therefore, I would say that I would go to the Supermarket and not the Grocery Store and probably confuse my little host brother.
By now, it feels unnatural for me to say supermarket. Just as unnatural as it feels for me to say trousers or cinema. It’s funny how quickly you can get used to a certain way of talking and I wonder what would happen now if I were to stay in England for a year.
I once unwillingly mad all the girls in my class laugh, when I refered to some guy’s chest hair as breast hair. (By the way, please don’t ask why we talked about this – I’m pretty sure the guy wore a very strange shirt.) I had a bad feeling about this while I was saying the words – it just sounded strange – but went with it anyway, because I had no idea how else to get my point across. The laughter that followed quickly showed me that my gut had been right, but you know what? I just laughed, too. My English might be strange, but at least I can make everybody laugh!
By the time I had figured this out (one year after arriving in Canada), I was already fluent in English and you wouldn’t have known that I was German by the way I was chattering about. And I had been wondering what the heck the difference between an elk and a moose was for a long, long time. Here’s the problem: The German word for moose is Elch. Do you see where my confusion comes from?
I finally learned the difference when my parents and me were visiting Banff National Park. Underneath a model of an elk, there was a sign in German that described the animal as a Waikiki-Hirsch. People will probably not comprehend, but for me it was an eye-opening experience.
So what can you take from my experience? Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The most crucial part in becoming fluent in a foreigner language is to open one’s mouth and to start talking. Will you make mistakes? Probably. But it doesn’t matter. I know that it can be scary to walk on new territory, but it can be done and if experience has shown me one thing then it’s how helpful people are when they realize you want to learn their language.
Do you have any funny experiences using a foreign language?