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Talk about an instance when you spoke with someone in a foreign language for the first time

Speaking Part 2

Talk about an instance when you spoke with someone in a foreign language for the first time

You should say:

  • when it was
  • with whom you spoke
  • what language you used

and say how you felt about it

Sample Answer:

Oh my, I have a feeling this is going to be a slightly embarrassing anecdote, but we all have to start somewhere experimenting with using another language ‘for real’ for the first time! Even though I blush at the memory, on balance it was also a lesson in how most people are a lot more forgiving than you might think, as long as you ‘show willing’ and at least make an effort to communicate in a friendly and sincere way

So, I’ll tell you when it was, who I was speaking with (though it might be overstating things a bit to say it was a conversation), what the language was and how I felt about the interaction

So, the situation was that I went to Vietnam to work as an English Teacher. I’m ashamed to say that even though I was going to help students improve their use of English as a foreign language, I myself am really terrible at learning and speaking other languages. I hope that this fact might make me more sympathetic to my students. I really do understand how hard it is to learn an unfamiliar vocabulary that sounds strange and even feels peculiar as you try to form the words in your mouth and move your tongue in odd contortions to create new sounds. This adventure was over a year ago now, but I remember it all very clearly. Anyway, I went to Vietnam speaking absolutely none of the language at all. I did have a guide book, and tried to learn some ‘useful phrases’ in advance using that. However, I found out very quickly that learning Vietnamese was considerably more challenging than I’d anticipated – and that’s saying something, as I was quite fearful of the challenge before I went. The problem for me, is that Vietnamese is a tonal language, and as my first language is English (which isn’t) I just didn’t have an ear sensitive enough to pick up the difference between how what seemed to me to be essentially the same word, might be uttered in 6 different ways to convey 6 distinctly different meanings. It was all very alien. However, where I was working very few people spoke any English, and I felt it was very rude of me not to make an effort to communicate in Vietnamese, however poorly. My arrival coincided with Vietnamese New Year, and I did learn to shout out with enthusiasm a poorly pronounced version of ‘chúc mừng năm mới’ as I interacted with local people around that time. I fear my expression was rather ugly and inexact, but the context helped – it was pretty obvious what I was trying to say, and this, coupled with the festive atmosphere meant if I uttered it then usually I got a friendly wave and response in kind

Where I was living, there weren’t any real cooking facilities, so I had to go out to eat all the time at local places. I am vegetarian, which was more uncommon than I expected in this part of Vietnam, so I set myself the task of learning to order a basic vegetarian noodle dish and an accompanying mango smoothie (because they were completely delicious and you can’t get anything like that in my county); along with a white iced coffee. I wanted to do so with courtesy and say ‘hello’ and ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to the staff at whatever eatery I ended up in. A kind colleague where I was working helped me by telling me what the phrases were, and how to pronounce them correctly. I’m not sure I could to be honest, but I wrote the words down carefully in a way that I hoped would mean I’d be able to read them out later. If I took my time, I thought I might be able to approximate the correct pronunciation and so I could be understood. So it was, one day I took myself off to a new restaurant, and carefully used my prepared speech to order a meal. The Vietnamese waitress was absolutely lovely. I could tell she was struggling a bit to understand what I was saying, but after a few attempts, she laughed in recognition. She was really delighted that I ‘could speak Vietnamese’. Of course I couldn’t really, but she told me (in very good English) that most overseas visitors didn’t make any effort at all to use her language, so terrible as my attempt was (my words not hers) she was happy to help and rewarded my efforts with a huge smile of appreciation. She was too polite to really correct my pronunciation, but in a way it didn’t matter. We still managed to communicate, and I think it helped build up some rapport. I got the meal I wanted (including my delicious mango smoothie and iced coffee afterwards) and I felt like I’d made a significant breakthrough. I stuck out a bit in the community to be honest, as I was the only foreigner working in the area. This meant that all the local restaurants and street food stalls learned quite quickly what I liked to eat and order and probably brought it anyway without me having to really ask correctly. However, that isn’t the point. I do think it’s important to try and communicate in the native language of your host country. It also helped remind me how self-conscious my own students might feel in uttering unfamiliar English words publically, in front of me, a native speaker- although there was really no need, I would only ever applaud their efforts in trying. Trying to learn just a tiny bit of Vietnamese was quite humbling for me. I was just so bad at it!. In the many weeks I was there, I don’t think I ever really progressed all that much, but I do have increased respect for anyone who can acquire even the most basic competence in another language let alone become fluent in communicating

So how did I feel? Well, a bit self-conscious because I wasn’t very good, but I also felt pleased with myself for at least having tried. I And, I suppose in literal terms I succeeded too, as I did get the meal I wanted! hope my efforts made me a better teacher, and perhaps a better guest in Vietnam too

The ability to speak another language is an extraordinary gift and talent. For some lucky few, language acquisition comes easily, the rest of us have to put in a lot of hours and blood, sweat and tears to get to that point. However, the reward in being able to connect with other people and cultures from all over the world is priceless. I don’t think I’ll ever be fluent in Vietnamese, but I hope that whatever countries I may be lucky enough to visit in future I will always be brave enough to learn to say (and use) simple but important phrases like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’… Having said that, though, it’s worth remembering that personally if in doubt I’ve always found nothing communicates more effectively than a wide smile, open body-language and a willingness to laugh at yourself. Some things it seems are indeed the same the world over, a winning smile is surely one such thing.

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