5 Times You Realize You’re Not Really Fluent in a Foreign Language

fluency

You could end up with a diploma or certificate of fluency in a foreign language, only to visit a country where the language is spoken and realize that you’re only sort of fluent.

Here are five situations where a foreign language speaker typically discovers they’re not as fluent as they thought:

1. The market.

When you learn a language, “The Market” is often the theme of a textbook chapter or vocabulary list.  But no amount of studying will completely prepare you for what is one of the hardest linguistic situations you could possibly find yourself in: wading through crowds, with multiple conversations in your ears, you try to discern what the vendors are saying – or yelling – or singing.  Many have regional dialects, or use slang and puns to attract potential buyers’ attention.  If you’re a foreigner, you’ll probably end up amazed that you survived the cacophony.

2.  Comedy.

If you’re fluent in another language, watching a funny movie or stand-up routine should be easy, right? But in this case, the fluency you lack isn’t necessarily word-related; it’s cultural. Some kinds of humor seem to be pretty universal, but others are total misses. This fascinating profile of Joe Wong, a Chinese comedian who’s found success in the U.S. but can’t get laughs in his homeland, is one of countless examples of how sometimes comedy just doesn’t translate.

 3.  Slang.

When speaking your newly acquired language, you might try to insert a hip slang word into what you’re saying, only to discover that, like the textbook you learned it from, the term is totally out of date.  Meanwhile, the people around you are using new words you didn’t even know existed. Individual slang terms are easy to pick up — it’s just vocabulary, after all. But in some cases, slang has become an entire dialect. Even in our own language, Cockney is inscrutable to those not in the know (as its first speakers intended).

4. Taboos.

As a foreigner, you often learn about taboos after inadvertently insulting someone.  Sadly, even a list like this one can’t cover every taboo in every country.  The good news is, because you’re a foreigner, most people will give you a pass if you mess up.

5.  Pop culture ephemera.

If you want to learn about a culture, there are lots of resources out there.  But what about the things people take for granted?  Think about, say, a commercial jingle that was popular when you were a kid, or a type of candy they don’t make anymore.  Or what about a cartoon you used to watch that’s not really a classic, so one writes about it or puts old episodes out on DVD? Someone who had a similar childhood will probably get it if you make a reference to one of these things.  But a foreigner?  Not so much.

Luckily, there are some ways to increase your fluency in these areas.  One is to visit websites in the language and culture that interests you.  You’ll pick up useful modern expressions, and even learn about some of that ephemera people are so nostalgic for.  You can also look into cultural training courses, like the ones we offer at aiaTranslations.  Another strategy is to get involved with the culture that interests you. For example, you can find a conversation partner or an online pen pal.

Still, there will probably be at least a few moments in your life as a foreigner where you’ll be at a loss. The best thing to do is just see it as part of the adventure of learning a new language.

Alysa Salzberg

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