What did you say?

By: Robin McGuire

Last year I decided to take a sabbatical from my “living-to-work” life in the United States and change to a “work-to-live” life so I could travel in Europe. Teaching English as a second language seemed to be the best course to meet this goal. I completed my English teaching certifications and chose Slovakia as my home for the next year.

River Vah at Sunset
River Vah at Sunset
Having traveled a bit, I knew it was important to know some words and phrases in the language of the country you’re visiting. Before vacationing in Italy a few years ago, I took a short beginners course in Italian. I felt that after this course I would be able to carry on a conversation with Native Italian speakers. I had my books, CD’s and 90 minute weekly lessons for six weeks. I was well prepared or so I thought.

I was sure I had the perfect diction, pronunciations and sentence structure for questions I wanted to ask Native speakers upon deplaning in Rome. I went to the taxi stall outside the airport and preceded to tell the driver where I wanted to go. One of the things I forgot to anticipate was he was going to answer me in his Native tongue, which he did quite quickly and with abandoned flare. Immediately I knew I was in trouble. I had no idea what he said to me and my self described feeling of knowing the language quickly dissipated.

After that experience I knew it was going to take me some time to even have a slight knowledge or understanding of a foreign language let alone speak it to the point of conversation. I only had a short time before I left for my year in Slovakia, so I felt just learning a few words and phrases and how to respond in one or two word sentences would do in the beginning. I practiced the basics; prosim (please), d’akujem (thank you), dobre den (good day), ano (yes), nie (no), voda (water), kava (coffee), and of course, toalety (restrooms). You can see where my basics lie.

After a few weeks in Slovakia, I felt really good about my language experience. I knew the words for the type of food I don’t like; anything with pork (bravcove, sunka, slanina) and things I do like to eat and drink; vegetables (zeleninovy), salmon (losos), red wine (cervene vino) and dark beer (tmava pivo). However, I still had trouble with my pronunciation.

It was a beautiful summer day in August and I had just visited the magnificent castle in Trencin. I was sitting outside at a cafe and wanted a mineral water. I felt quite confident I had down the correct phrase and began to speak. As a foreigner I was told to always start my request with please. I said, “Prosim, minteraka.” I’m not sure what the server heard but she looked quite startled and immediately ran into the cafe. I couldn’t imagine what I actually said to her, but it must have been shocking. Another server came to my rescue. She spoke a little English and asked me what I wanted. I told her and she smiled and brought me a mineral water. Who knows what my original waitress thought. I guess I’ll never know. Again, my language balloon was deflated and for a time I really didn’t want to open my mouth and attempt to speak Slovak. I knew however, I needed to continue to speak the language, even if my grammar and pronunciation weren’t perfect. It’s called communicating.

My year in Slovakia is half way completed and even with listening to daily Slovak conversations and feeble attempts at just the right pronunciations of certain words (I can’t seem to get the “H” and “C” right), I’m still struggling to carry on a conversation. I can order off a menu and find I read the language better than I can understand or certainly speak it.

My experience of language immersion has given me great respect for my students, many whom are teens and adults, for taking the time and effort to learn English. My advice is to continue to listen and speak the language. Go to films, watch English language TV and find a friend, family member or colleague to practice with everyday. Don’t be afraid to speak the language. Even if you scare a waiter or two, it will be worth it.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingRobin McGuire is an American expat living in Slovakia. Blog description: My musings on travel and adventure for my new life as an ESL teacher in Central Europe
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Contest Comments » There is 1 comment

Sami Veloso wrote 9 years ago:

Learning a foreign language is never easy, specially if they sound so different from our own. Good luck Robin.

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