….and why I tried to engage in a conversation with Woody Allen in Spanish

Will making a lot of mistakes actually let you improve more quick? In a way, yes!

Will trying to avoid mistakes make you stuck in your language learning process? Absolutely. Read on why – and especially how I dealt with my failure trying to take Woody Allen’s restaurant order in Spanish (true story!).

I left home when I was 18. Since then I have always been travelling and working in foreign countries. When I went to Spain to work in the tourism industry I had already studied Spanish for a year at the university in Austria but had never really practiced speaking it.

It was quite nerve wrecking to work in a five star luxury hotel in customer service in a foreign country with little to no active language speaking skills. I remember standing in front of the table trying to figure out the right way to formally ask customers about what they would like to order. It took me a minute or two to get across my message. It was a disaster.  I was sure the customers thought that I was either very slow or was afflicted with some kind of mental disorder. 🙂

You should have seen me, standing in front of the table in my beige khaki hotel uniform, stammering words, while my face turned redder and redder.

If only I would have known better. If only somebody would have told me that it was ok to make mistakes, and that everybody makes them. Because in my head, every sentence leaving my mouth had to be perfect, especially when I was serving high class customers. I was young and I thought the hotel would fire me as soon as the first guests would complain about me. I was sure of that. In the end the customers didn’t complain and they were very forgiving regarding my mistakes and actually appreciated my effort.

Only Woody Allen wasn’t forgiving.

He was producing the movie “Vicky Christina Barcelona” at that time, staying at the hotel that I worked in. I was sent to his table to take the order, not recognizing him, because I was too busy sorting the spanish sentences in my head while I was walking over there. When I started with: “Buenos dias, senor. Que desea tomar?”(Good day Sir, what would you like to order?)… he just looked at me and didn’t say a word. My thoughts were racing – from where did I know his face? Why wasn’t he answering? what had I done wrong this time…. it felt like an eternity until one of his people “rescued” me and said: “Sorry we do not speak Spanish. We are from America. This is Woody Allen, you know!” If the ground had opened and swallowed me in that moment I wouldn’t have felt worse.

My point is: I went to Barcelona, completely unprepared, thinking my Spanish had to be perfect.

I would have never started speaking on my own, but I was forced to. It would have been so much easier if I had started speaking and training from the beginning, already back in Austria, than waiting till the very last moment when I was forced to do it.

Another incident a few days later made me realise how little you have to know in a foreign language to get around.  I had to open a bank account and I still hardly spoke any spanish. Well, you know what, I succeeded in opening the account. My bank agent and I could communicate, me in broken Spanish, he in broken English (English was also still a challenge for me at that time).

What can you learn from my  experiences?

1) No matter how little you speak or how wrong it is – your effort is mostly appreciated, especially when the other person doesn’t speak your language him / herself. Be indifferent to your own embarrassment and fear. To do so you should jump into the cold water and SPEAK. Go out there and speak – learning a new language starts by speaking it from the first day onwards. Seriously – if it is only ten new words that you just learned – use them, repeat them, test them.

2) Trying to speak makes you braver and hungry for more – you will gain momentum and become ever more comfortable speaking. What could possibly go wrong when speaking a foreign language when you are still making lots of mistakes? There will be people who will laugh, or complain, or correct you, maybe not as friendly as you’d like. I am not sugar-coating anything here. But don’t take this personally, and view every feedback as an opportunity to learn and become a better speaker in the foreign language.

Again – most people will mainly appreciate you making the effort and will not judge you by your mistakes.

3) Body language and mimics are powerful tools and will help you out when you are at a loss for words – just use them wisely. 😛

As I am writing this blog I am learning a new language myself – Turkish. I teamed up with a study buddy who is at the same level as I am – our goal – to reach B1 (starting from being an absolute beginner) within the next 6 months. I’ll keep you updated and will tell you all about embarrassing moments – which will happen, I am sure. But I am already looking forward to becoming a better turkish speaker because of that!

Are you still not sure about leaving your fear behind?

This is where my offer comes in. Having been through all the emotional ups and downs in this area, I want you to only get the “light” version of what I had to go through. My point is that you can prepare yourself better than my 20 year old self. I have developed a “SPRECHKURS” (speaking course) that gets you speaking in no time – even with very little previous speaking experience.

In this 5 to 10 unit course we will cover the following:

  • introducing yourself
  • making orders
  • talking about the weather
  • talking about current actual happenings
  • joking and feeling more confident
  • some tricks on pronouncing German words.

 

In diesem Sinne – happy learning everybody, if you need any advice or motivation – let me know – I am sure we can figure something out!

Eure Claudia

P.S.: The reason I am writing this article is because I see lots of people suffering with this issue. They are working hard on mastering a new language but are not getting anywhere; it is something I have observed as a language teacher very often.

I am convinced that absolutely everybody is able to get to the point of having a conversation in a foreign language quickly, if they are willing to overcome their psychological fears.

If my story shows you one thing it’s that you should be having conversations even in the beginnings of your language learning journey!