Toastmasters speech (How to Lose 60 IQ Points) originally given on June 16, 2005
Award: Most improved speaker
Have you have ever tried to learn a foreign language?
Or travelled to a country where English is not the official language?
These are two situations where opportunities for miscommunication are rampant, and where I have had to accept that I sound less than intelligent.
I'm fortunate enough to have visited fourteen countries. Each time I go abroad, I try to learn enough of the local language to say "hello" and "goodbye," "please" and "thank you," "restroom," and "how much does this cost?" It's my own way of learning more about the culture and doing my best to counteract the well-founded stereotype of the Ugly American. I have found that people are nicer to me if I make an effort to be polite in their language. I've also discovered that I am prone to miscommunication when I interact with Italians and the French.
Ordering, Italian style
Here's one example that happened five years ago in Italy. I was warned ahead of time that (while it is possible to use sign language to get what I needed,) I ought to be careful about how I used certain gestures. With that in mind, I made an effort to use my phrasebook and not have to "resort" to gestures. But one night at dinner, the words on the menu were nowhere in my phrasebook — if I wanted to know what I was ordering before it was served to me, I would have to actually try and communicate with the waiter.
I said "Scuzi, parla anglais o spagnolo?" And he said "No, parla portoghese?" I said "No, parlez français?" He said no and asked me if I spoke German. Finally, I just started pointing at the word I didn't understand on the menu, saying "no capito." ("I don't understand.") He made the sign of a large, round animal and snorted. I realized that the word must have meant pig or boar and said "no" and pointed to another item on the menu. The waiter drew himself up tall and used his index fingers to make horns and pawed the ground with his right foot. When I pointed to the next item, he made the sign of a bird flapping its wings. I said "si, grazie!" and my companion said "due, per favore." The matter was settled and all of us had a big laugh together.
After using a phrasebook for four weeks in Italy, I decided that I would learn some French before visiting France. I already speak two languages pretty fluently (English and Spanish). And for the last three years, I've been studying French. I can now speak some really killer 'Franglais' (French + English), but I often lapse into 'Spench' (a weird combination of Spanish and French).
I have to admit that I'm a reasonably self-confident woman and I consider myself an excellent communicator. That is, until I open my mouth to speak French in front of a native speaker. The fact is, I know enough French to have a conversation with a second grader.
Putting myself on the menu
Last Saturday night, I was on a date at an art gallery. At the gallery, my date (Harry) introduced me to an acquaintance named Sandy. It turned out that Sandy and her friend Barbara are French. After a few minutes of conversation in English, Harry made a comment about me practicing my French. I nodded "yes" but continued in English. At that point, Barbara said "Parlez-vous français?" And I responded "Oui, je parle un petit peu." ("I speak a little French.") She asked if I'd been to France, and I replied "Je suis allée en France deux fois l'annee dernier et j'ai habité à Paris par un mois." ("I went to France twice last year and lived in Paris for a month.") At that point, I was rescued by Harry, who speaks no French and who steered the conversation back to English. Things continued that way until I stepped away to use the restroom.
When I came back, I jumped into the conversation mid-sentence, just in time to sound like a moron. The conversation was about bare midriffs and backs. In my haste to clarify what that meant for the French speakers, I lapsed into Spench. Thinking of the Spanish words for kidneys (los riñónes), I referred to les reignones and gestured to the small of my back, near my kidneys.
At this point, the two Frenchwomen, who had barely cracked a smile all evening long, burst into laughter so hard that they were nearly crying. Barbara and Sandy both doubled over, cackling loudly at my gaffe. Sandy choked out an explanation between gasps: "You, how you say, used a word for food."
My cheeks burned with humiliation as I realized that I had referred to my body as something that would be ordered on a menu, like chicken livers.
There are also times when I know enough French to fool a native speaker into thinking I'm actually competent in her language. On my first day in Paris, I was looking for the metro and stopped to ask a Parisienne for directions. When I asked "Où est le métro?" she pointed downward, as if to say "don't you know that the metro is underground?"
I was embarassed and at that point, I clarified and asked "Où est le plus proche arrêt du métro?" ("Where's the closest metro stop?") She paused, then rattled off rapid-fire directions. I only understood the first six words words out of her mouth, something about two lefts and a right. But I smiled, thanked her, and walked away. Needless to say, I got lost on the way to the stop. But my pride was intact.
All of these miscommunications resulted in me feeling like I'd lost about 60 IQ points. In the first instance, words failed me completely but I still was able to order dinner. In the second, I overestimated my verbal abilities and literally served myself up for criticism. And in the last, the person speaking to me was far too generous in her assessment of my language skills. But in the end, I'm willing to sound like a redneck toddler for the sake of goodwill between cultures. Frankly, it's the smart thing to do.