Faux Pas

I have two best friends: mistakes and questions.

This post is advice and encouragement for language learners who decide to immerse themselves in their second language. It’s the best way to learn, because you will be put in situations where you will make mistakes.

During our very brief teacher training, our experienced teacher contact for TAPIF told us to make sure, when we give a lesson, that we leave room for students to make errors. She suggested that we tell them, “In this exercise, you must make at least five mistakes.” I hadn’t ever thought about making that explicit before, but the more I thought about it the more I believed in it. I’ve learned the most from my mistakes.

In my first week staying with my teacher host when I first got to France, I decided to use a slangy term that I’d picked up in Paris (le bordel) because it fit the situation I was describing. When I used it, both her and her daughter burst out laughing. I was understandably confused…and they explained to me that it just sounds bizarre to hear a non-native use it, and also it’s not as appropriate for the situation as this other word because it’s a little too slangy and a little too strong.

If I had used a different, safer word, I would have never learned that. I would also never have gotten laughed at.

But I think those situations are what’s built me a thicker skin, because I know that a brief moment of embarrassment is worth learning what you learn when you make a faux pas in French.

Asking questions is similarly humbling. To admit you don’t know something can be a huge challenge, especially when what you “don’t know” is the word for fork, or how to order food at a restaurant. We are used to knowing those things like we know to say “hello” and “goodbye” when coming and going…which, I hate to break it to ya, is also only applicable in our home country.

I was teaching a class last week and I could tell one of the girls had a question. She was asking everyone around her how to say something, and I couldn’t hear what the something was. I asked her if she had a question, and she said “no, it’s shameful.”

The only outcome of being ashamed? She didn’t learn the word. I have only empathy for her, of course — I know how hard it is to ask someone something that you think you should know, not to mention how hard high school sometimes is…but I had a moment of reflection based on what she said, and realized that most of my improvement was attained by not letting shame or fear hold me back.

I didn’t always do that, of course. There have been times when I haven’t asked or haven’t tried because I was afraid to mess up. It’s normal. But now I check myself when that happens, and I’ve cultivated a sense of humor about it. Laughing at yourself is a necessary part of learning. And, you can always choose to try what you’re trying again later if it’s not the right moment.

Especially in the first month or two of moving to a new country, it will be intimidating and disheartening to feel like all you do is make mistakes and ask questions. The rewards are coming, though, and they will always be worth it.

I’ll now point out the irony of the title. “Faux pas” is a word that we even use in English to describe something you shouldn’t do. According to wikipedia, “A faux pas is a socially awkward or tactless act, especially one that violates accepted social norms, standard customs, or the rules of etiquette.”

And I’m saying: make them. Make them all the time, learn how you did it, forgive yourself, and you won’t make the same one twice.

Faux Pas