“Angie, Your English Is Shit!”
I’m not afraid to admit that every so often I have wanted to surrender to the task of mastering English. Sometimes I feel it like it is a stray dog that warms up to me, and just as I begin to be comfortable, it bites me and reminds me that it is not so easy to master. In some occasions I communicate very easily and my English is really good, but others days I feel like I am communicating in what must be a strange language as I am not understood.
I have been studying English since my primary school, continuing throughout high school, bachelor and postgraduate studies. It has been so many years now and sometimes I think I need another 40 years in a world where English is exclusively spoken.
Sometimes, when the pressure attacks me and I just want to be clear, I remember one of my numerous embarrassing moments trying to improve my English together with the great advice from lovely and wonderful people that I have met in this amazing place called Australia!
- The first advice was from an Australian friend who was committed to helping me out, who had no restraints when teaching me and correcting me. He said that people who want to learn English have to know that the most important thing is to be understood and to be understandable. It does not matter if they make mistakes: “Just try to get/give the correct message, that is the only thing that is relevant”. According to this, if you have to dance, sing, act and imitate to get your message across, just do it.
- My first job was to work as a kitchen hand. I had to share my workplace with New Zealanders and Nepalese people. The head chef (an amazing friend who is really crazy but overall a nice person) always said: “Angie, your English is shit”. He never made me feel bad, it was a relationship where we were honest with one another and joking at all times. I had to think quick and respond with a good answer to make him feel worse, so he always heard my winning comeback, “Yeah, I know I have shit English but I also speak amazing Spanish, but you just speak English, with a seriously bad accent that no Kiwi or Australian can understand!” I know it was a cruel game, but it was the first time that someone had the patience to teach me and make me feel confident about my English through our nasty games.
- I cannot forget how amazing I felt when I understood the voice message on the trains for the first time! “Good morning customers, your next service, at the platform 1, the 5.15 Flinders street, stopping all station to Flinders street. Remember to touch on and touch off” (it is something like that). I know, it is a bit ridiculous to measure my level of English based on what I hear at the train station, but it felt great to understand word for word as opposed to a mixture of sounds that started with “Good” and finished with “off”.
- How many of us have answered a question with a smile when we have not understood a question? A similar situation occurs when we answer the following questions with a YES because we do not want to risk sounding stupid saying anything else: what time is it? Which tram goes to Parliament Station? Where are the nearest Coles? Now it feels great to understand questions and even better to be able to answer appropriately.
I have talked with lots of friends about their experiences and what they did to get over these kinds of situations. Angela has been living in London for 10 years; she told me that she felt confident of her English after 4 years. On the other hand, Carlos said that he needed 2 years to be fluent and speak English very clearly. Although Clara has been living in Perth for 7 years and is very confident about her English, she admits that sometimes her writing is very different to the native English speaker.
When I try to find new ways to improve my new language, I just have to remind myself that so many times I do not understand what people are saying even in Spanish, and on some occasions Spanish speakers do not understand me when I am talking in Spanish. Problems in communications always happen, it does not matter the language, it only takes two people to experience misunderstandings.
In recent months, when I have not understood something in English or felt like I had made a mistake, I laugh off the situation and ask someone to correct me. It’s great ot have confidence! At the same time, I have found one of the best sentences that I have read: “Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language”, H. Jackson Brown Jr.