Recently, my family and I took a cruise of the Mediterranean. It was a pretty awesome experience, for sure, but trying to get around town whenever we got off the ship was a little stressful. Every town’s train system was a little different, and public transportation in general wasn’t as convenient as I had been led to believe.
In Toulon, France we were in a hurry to get back to the ship. We needed to catch a shuttle bus to another destination that we had already paid for and were having a hard time finding a taxi. After 45 minutes of waiting, we finally found one.
Neither my wife nor I spoke any French beyond “Bonjour” and “Merci.” Our driver, a local, spoke about two hundred words of English total. Yet out of all the taxi drivers we encountered on our 10-day trip, he was our favorite. In fact, I learned (or more accurately, relearned) a few things about foreign languages from him, such as…
People are usually communicating for a reason, not for the sake of communicating itself.
The driver’s English was limited, and if I were a jerk I’d say it was even poor. But I couldn’t care less about that. I was frustrated with the possibility of missing our shuttle bus and grateful that the guy was helping us out.
He knew enough English to help us, which was more than I could expect since I was, after all, a visitor in his country. I’d much rather have a guy with D- in English help me out than a guy with A+ English who was no help at all.
People you come across are never trying to gauge your language. They’re trying to achieve something, even if it’s something as simple as passing the time with small talk.
You can have a conversation on limited vocabulary and grammar.
The guy didn’t just drive. He asked us questions and talked about his family. Like I said, his English was definitely limited, and he didn’t understand a lot of our responses. At times, it was awkward. I tried to say “Montmartre” (don’t ask me why, because I don’t remember) and he thought I asked about his mom.
But I came away knowing that he was from the area, his dad was in the Army, and he had a brother. It was just idle chat, but I remember this guy and remember the experience positively because he had the guts to talk to us.
You can get by with intuition.
He didn’t understand a lot of what we were saying, but he could tell by our body language and what he did understand that we were in a hurry. He zipped through traffic and got us to our destination with plenty to spare.
I thanked him and left him a decent tip for his efforts, and as we were leaving, he spread his arms out wide and yelled, “Have a good time in France!”
The biggest takeaway from this experience is that your language doesn’t have to be perfect to help people out, make friends, and even make small talk. In fact, after about a month of smart studying you can be at a level where a foreign language is useful to you, even if you’re not fluent.