Language Cringe

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Finally, you’re out of your teens, out of high school, and you’ve found a bit of purpose in the Real World. Just when you think you’ve gotten past cringeing about your life (social awkwardness is decreasing, confidence is on the rise, life is looking up!), what do you do? If you’re me, you steamroller straight into a new minefield of awkwardness: functioning in a new language. Welcome to a whole new world of cringe: Language Cringe. For those of you who may have done one of two reasonable things – 1, remained in your native tongue, or 2, properly learned a new language before going to live in it – allow me to outline the three main pillars of this social phenomenon:

1. Conventions that don’t exist in your mother language

Unsurprisingly, languages possess their own social and structural conventions. In your own language, these just seem to make sense naturally. In a new language, you kinda have to rewire your brain to start instinctively thinking of these new conventions when you have a conversation. For example, my life currently involves attempting French on a regular basis. In French, there are two forms of “you”: vous, which is formal (used to refer to someone you don’t know or someone of higher status than you), and tu, which is informal (used to refer to people you know well). I am still constantly mixing these at inappropriate times, resulting in situations liiiiiiiike

  1. Making it look like I think I’ve just met someone who I’ve worked with for 5 months now! (Them: Comment ca va? Me: Oui, et vous?)
  2. Treating someone asking for directions in the subway like a long-lost pal who I know very well indeed! (Them: Où est la station St-Michel? Me: Oh, tu peux prendre ce ligne à Berri-UQAM bla bla bla)
  3. Correcting how much I know someone mid-sentence! (Talking to my cab driver: Est-ce que tu penses – oh, desolé, vous pensez – que bla bla bla)

Sometimes it helps me to understand how awkward breaking one of these conventions is if I compare them to conventions in English. Maybe this is like calling someone “sir” when you actually know them pretty well? It’s hard to think of an equivalent here, but the reassuring thing is that yeah, that might throw someone off, but they’ll probably just roll with it. I’m hoping that’s what the Québecois think when I mess this stuff up!

2. Synonyms

I hate synonyms the most because they very often impede my understanding of a situation seemingly unnecessarily. This emphasizes the importance of not only being able to use your new language in a basic way, but building a strong vocabulary as well, to really be able to function properly. For example, today in the office two people were talking about a new professor that got hired. As of this morning, the only verb I knew for hiring someone was “embaucher,” but they were using the verb “s’engager.” I thought I knew what was going on from the context of the conversation, but I still was not confident enough to really assume I understood. Of course, then comes the point where one of them asks me a question about the new prof, and the only thing I can come up with as a response is “…s’engager?”, making me look rather simple. Alas. But it’s a constant learning process, and the one good thing about a really cringey moment like that is that the meaning of “s’engager” is strooooongly imprinted in my brain now. Thanks social awkwardness!

3. Regional dialects

If you’re bad at being a millenial like me, you already have enough trouble understanding the slang of the hip kids in your own language. Enter: regional-specific pronunciation and slang of Canadian French. For some reason all French schools in Canada feel it prudent to teach the “standardized language” (i.e., French from France), leaving anglophone students with a rather glaring hole in their education where “Québec” should be. The textbooks seem to say, “what is this Québec u speak of? Shhhhhhh.” Then one arrives in Québec, and though it’s by no means insurmountable, the pronunciation is different, and many words you were taught are simply not used. For example, I was always taught that socks are “chaussettes.” In Québec, they are “bas.” Sometimes I just don’t identify words that I definitely have in my vocabulary, just because of the way they’re pronounced (I thought “planche” (meaning “board”) was “plonge” (meaning “dive”) for an entire conversation once). Another hallmark at least of the French spoken in Montréal is the random injection of English words, which you would think would help, but when you’re certain the person talking to you is speaking in French, all of a sudden the word “British” seems to be some foreign French phrase you must’ve not heard before. These are all things I just have to get used to, and once I do I’m sure they’ll present no problem. But for the time being, it definitely leads to a whole new alleyway of cringe that I get to stroll down regularly. Ahh look, there’s the Dumpster of Moments that Didn’t Have to Be Awkward. Oh, quickly! There darts by the Cat of Quizzical Expressions!

The lucky thing about all of this is that the people I’ve met in Québec are exceedingly nice about everything, and I think for the most part they find my efforts endearing. At the very least, perhaps it gives me a childlike aura of innocence. If any of you are struggling with such very same language challenges, I will you all the best of luck and I hope that people are kind to you!

Feature photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

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I am a wildlife biologist from Alberta, Canada who has also been called a science gardener, a wilderdude, really short, and a rodent discovery technician. Apart from frolicking with animals for science, I have a problem with liking too many other things including writing, photography, and art.

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