“Body language is a form of mental and physical ability of human non-verbal communication, which consists of body posture, gestures, facial expressions, and eye movements. Humans send and interpret such signals almost entirely subconsciously.” – Wikipedia, “Body language”
Between 60-70% of all meaning in human communication is derived as a result of body language. And in my opinion, when trying to communicate in a second language, the interpretation of body language is more important than understanding the words that are being said to you.
It’s as if people communicate to you in puzzles. You pick up one or two words that you recognize or that are familiar to words in your own language, and you add those to the body language of the person you are communicating with to try to figure out what they are saying. I still find it incredibly difficult to talk on the phone in French because the exchanges are quick and there’s no opportunity for me to see the person I’m talking to.
For the first few weeks I was here in France, I was completely out of my comfort zone. Language is so linked to culture that English is kind of like a safe-haven where I am able to find myself again, with the use of a well-thought-out sentence. Sarcasm, irony, jokes and ideas are all easily accessed in English. When speaking French, I was stripped of that “insider information” and had to try to be myself in other ways.. mainly through body language. It is much harder having a personality in a second language. All of the sudden, I was using my hands more when I talked, using exaggerated facial expressions to add to the tone of my statements, and physical humour seemed much more accessible to me. Strangely, I felt more like myself; I was acting like the person that I think I am on the inside because I didn’t have the ability to manipulate language into representing that for me.
Living in another language has taught me to appreciate the experience of Canadians who have to learn to speak English. The every day things become just a bit more difficult. For example, Morgane, my collocatrice, and I went to the Part-Dieu shopping centre for lunch we decided to eat at Bagelstein. This is a store centred around bagels because they are so “exotic”. They serve bagels like specialty sandwiches (Tim Horton’s, take note).
I wanted to order an “Isadore” bagel which had marinated bell peppers, cream cheese, lettuce and dried tomatoes on it. I don’t like tomatoes (I know, it’s strange) and so I made it as far as to say sans tomates without the server misunderstanding me. Unfortunately, I had to identify the type of bagel this taste sensation should be served on. Who would have thought that the translation for “plain” would be just as difficult to remember as “whole wheat” or “sesame seed”? There was no posted list of options for me to use as a starting point and I started with “for the bread part….” and the proceeded to point at the choice I wanted. He pointed at the one beside it to verify.
No…. I want the plain! I asked Morgane for help with the word but she didn’t know what “plain” meant in English. He then pointed to the muffins and the cookies, in turn, asking if that’s what I meant.
No!! I just want the plain!!!
Finally, he pointed to the plain bagels.
If you are ever attempting to order anything plain in French, here is my bit of wisdom to pass on as a result of this experience: natur is the word you are looking for. (Whole what is complèt and sesame seed is sésame).
The bagel was delicious and I had to laugh at myself a lot, but it was one of those moments where you go “this is what it’s like when you don’t have a good grasp on English; the day-to-day activities in your life are really stressful because you can’t communicate simple things”.
The worst is when the people you’re attempting to communicate with don’t have any patience with you. Thankfully, the gentleman behind the counter was very patient and laughed with me, and not at me. I hope.
Now that I’m getting more comfortable with French (and can feel myself improving), hopefully I can also maintain this self-awareness. Just to be sure that I do, I’ve started Spanish lessons, or as I like to call it “brain gymnastics”!