Making A Million Mistakes

(from Eric)

During the PILAT course we took this past year in Colorado (Program in Language Acquisition Techniques), we all came away with a good catch phrase:

"You have to make a million mistakes to learn a language."  And the implication is: "So get out there and start making them."

An alternative:  "You have to murder the language before you can master the language."

And it's true.  And embarrassing.  And funny all at the same time.  In other words, it looks just like the quiet, steady, powerful grace of God at work in us everyday in our ordinary lives.  

The aforementioned mistakes come in innumerable forms, but I have noticed a few broad categories which I will attempt to describe for you here.

1.  The "Not-the-right-foreign-language" mistake.  In America, this is when you thank your Chinese waitress with "Gracias" because her accent is a bit strong.

The first week we were here, our family ventures on an inter-city bus trip to a nearby town.  One buys these tickets from the driver.  I needed two tickets.  All I had to do was say my destination, the word "deux", and look at the little cashier machine for the price.  Well, I got the destination right, and then said something like "toi" (which is not "2" in any language that I know of).  We got past it, and when the transaction was complete, I gave him a confident and courteous "sawa".  Which is, of course, Swahili.  I realized my mistake, wanted to explain myself, realized that would make it worse, and walked away with my head down.

And of course, now it's funny.

2.  The "Delay-to-the-point-of-saying-nothing" mistake.

Another fellow student here described this to a tee.  He called it the "10-second delay".  You just arrived.  You don't know how to say anything in French, but you did learn "je ne comprends pas". (I don't understand.)  An innocent old lady walks up to you on the street, and utters a very kind unintelligible something to you.  Two seconds later, you realize that you have no idea what she said.  At five seconds, you are still open-mouthed and mute, and she is wondering if you know how to speak any language at all.  At eight seconds, you haven't changed, she has concluded you have "locked-in" syndrome from your basilar arterial infarction and walks away.  At ten seconds, you remember your magic phrase but realize you are too late, and feebly call after her, "Je ne comprends pas..."

3.  The "Language-misadventure-turned-serious-faux-pas".  These mistakes count for more than 1 on your journey to a million.

I have yet to score one of these on my own, but I take comfort in knowing that it is inevitable.  One of our SPLICE instructors (who lived in France) famously asked a woman if he could speak to her fesse a fesse (bottom to bottom) instead of face a face.  I can picture myself messing up that vowel.  

Alyssa once was talking to a mom in Kenya about her child not eating today, because of a surgery that was planned.  Her interns graciously told her later that she had said (in Swahili):  "Mama, don't eat your child today.  You will eat your child tomorrow."  Thus, I am making a point to discover the different French words for "feed" and "eat", but I guess that just means it will be something else that gets me.

Couldn't we just learn this as a download, like in The Matrix?  Can't we skip the process?  No, we can't, and thus we trust in some purpose behind it.  And as I see my heart and my ego bump along the crowded street, getting jarred here and catapulted there, I catch a glimpse of what the process is for.


Clare said...

Great post Eric! After 3 years in Buenos Aires working on Spanish and now tackling Thai in Bangkok, I can totally relate to your mistake categories. It took me months to master the difference between "older" and "better" in Spanish. For a while there I told everyone I had a younger sister, younger brother, and a better brother. In Thai I say the wrong thing every time I open my mouth since I still only hit the right tone about 50% of the time. Sigh.

Don Guizzetti said...

Wonderful and insightful post. I think that I got close to one of the "bulk" errors when the woman who runs the cafe near language school explained that she enjoyed helping the student with their French when making orders at her cafe. She said that she adored "les etrangers." Her jaw momentarily dropped when I replied in "stupid French that, "I would like to make love to everyone in France." Her jaw recovered as did my ego, eventually

Bob Ause said...

This is when I curse our human arrogance at the Tower of Babel. Just think, if it wasn't for that event, we would all be speaking one language! Bob Ause