Miscommunication

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One of the many fun elements of traveling abroad is trying to communicate with people who do not share your mother tongue. Results vary, but the results for the beginner more often than not come to humorous conclusions.

Today I bought ice cream. There’s a newsstand a block away from the hotel that sells magazines, drinks, snacks, etc., and there’s a little cooler in front that holds a small wealth of prepackaged ice cream treats. There were prices posted on the cooler’s sliding lid, but it was a bit difficult to decipher which price belonged with which item. I grabbed one that I thought might be 8,00 Kuna (approximately $1.50) and handed it to the lady at the cash register.

She smiled, rung the item up, and rattled off what the price was in Croatian. I, of course, didn’t understand a word other than “Kuna.” The word she said sounded a bit like “ocho,” which is the Spanish word for “eight.” Knowing full well that all languages bear family resemblances to each other, I ventured a guess and traced the number 8 in the air where she could see it. She nodded, I gave her my money and walked away, sheepishly licking my ice cream.

I wonder if it would help matters at all if I carried around a white board where I could just draw whatever it is I need to communicate. In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a coffee drinker. They serve coffee at the hotel in the mornings, but only one demitasse at a time. There are only three of us staying in the hotel at the moment, so they understandably don’t put out a whole American-style spread in the morning, complete with a barrel full of fresh coffee like you might find at an American hotel and big American-sized mugs. This is not America. I don’t expect it to be America. But it’s hard to communicate to the very sweet and hardworking Croatian waitress that you’d like a second thimblefull of coffee, please. Maybe if I drew a little coffee cup on my handy-dandy little white board and held it up when she came to the table, we’d all get a good laugh and I’d get a second cup of coffee.

It’s really good coffee. Sad thing is, I can’t even tell the nice people who run the hotel how much I like their coffee.

Still, there’s nothing like trying to function in a culture where no one speaks your language to poke a hole in your ego. If any of you know someone with an overinflated opinion of him or herself, just ship the person to your nearest non-English speaking country and have them try to buy something. They’ll feel like idiots in no time.

If anything, this fish-out-of-water experience helps me understand how my students feel. Occasionally I’ll tell them a word or give a command and they’ll look at me with this blank and slightly terrified stare that tells me I need to rephrase myself, and fast. Now I know how they feel and can act accordingly. It’s not easy trying to communicate in your second language, even if you can speak a little bit. I know that. They know that. Hopefully we can all muddle through somehow. 

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