Living abroad can mean that a lot of things get lost in translation. For example I remember not long after I moved over to Italy having a conversation with someone and I was really confused when they were explaining how they love eating (what I thought were) Ostrich Eggs… I was pretty surprised by this Veneto delicacy but none the less I listened intently. My friend told me how nice and soft they are inside and told me about a technique to open the shell. It wasn’t until she started talking about the salty sea taste that I realised I’d got the wrong end of the stick. We were talking about ‘ostriche‘ – oysters.
Teaching English is basically a passport to confusing and bewildering conversations. Not only in the classroom but my housemate (Italian) and I have had many hilarious moments as we mispronounce a word or mishear another. My housemate came home a few months ago with some coconut oil, pretty innocent stuff until I burst into the kitchen seeing it on the counter and crying in Italian “Oh great, you got the ‘olio di cacca‘” (poo-oil). Another comic moment was when we were together with a group of friends and she comes out with “Honkey Donkey“. We all (the majority being typical Brits and not going to let this one lie) asked her where she got that from? It turned out she meant “okey dokey”. We all much prefer “honkey donkey” and she hasn’t really lived that one down.
Another of my friends (American) was explaining to our Italian friends what PB&J sandwiches were. They understood the jam part but got a little confused when she introduced the final ingredient “burro di ragni” (spider butter instead of burro d’arachidi – simple mistake)
Most of the time language mishaps are funny but, it can also be extremely frustrating when you need to explain something and you just don’t have the words. This can happen in your native language but more often than not in a foreign language. There have been many times I’ve been at the bank/post office/public offices and while I’ve said what I needed to say fairly succinctly, the person behind the plexiglass just doesn’t understand what I want or need. In those cases a language barrier probably doesn’t help but they just aren’t willing to try and understand.
I had lunch with a Brazillian lady on Sunday. It was fantastic. Not only was the food amazing but it was a really nice afternoon. She’s been in Verona for a month now, has Italian citizenship as her great-grandparents were from Italy but has only ever known Italian dialect – from Treviso. Not much help in Verona. I met her a month ago and since then she has learnt quite a bit but still struggles and often slips into Portuguese when words fail her. I speak minimal Portuguese … and when I say minimal the words I rememeber from my trip to Rio two years ago include; abacaxi (pineapple), água de coco (coconut water) and linda (beautiful). While I wasn’t sure how many beautiful pineapples we were going to see that day, I was fairly confident we’d have a nice lunch whether we understood each other or not.
There were a couple of quiet moments … mainly as I filled up my plate and gobbled down more delicious food, but besides the silences, word bumbles and gaffs we were able to get to know each other. Even when we didn’t understand the words, we were still able in someway, to understand each other. The fact that we wanted to understand what the other was saying meant that somehow … we did.
A conversation is so much more than words: a conversation is eyes, smiles, the silences between the words. Annika Thor
On Sunday I discovered that it really doesn’t matter whether you speak the same language as someone or not – you can still have some great conversations. They may take some time, random words and phrases will be thrown in there, hand gestures, a quick game of charades, they may not be grammatically perfect but who cares.
If you really care about what the other person is saying – understanding won’t be problem.