Language Nuances You Don’t Learn in a Classroom
Conjugation, subject-verb agreement, verb tenses…is there anything more clinical than learning a language at school? While these are all necessary elements of language learning, real fluency is born from listening to native speakers in their natural element.
I’m talking about the type of mannerisms and peculiarities even native speakers don’t know about themselves! Sure you can write a 10-page essay in impeccable french, but can you gab with the girls at the hair salon? Here are the five language nuances your teacher won’t teach you.
Languages don’t sound the same. That’s an obvious statement. But even the inflections and vocal tones don’t necessarily translate. For example, in english, depending on the context, we don’t necessarily need to go up at the end of a question. But in french, its essential. I’ve even been told before that even though my american accent is often undetectable, I speak in an american rhythm. I’m not sure what that means but it just emphasizes how these subtle idiosyncracies can make the difference.
I always thought interjections were intuitive. Actually, I never thought about them much at all until I moved to France. But I quickly realized that interjections are a learned part of language. If you stub your toe, you’re not going to say “ouch”. You should say “Ouïe”. If you eat something gross, you’ll get quite a few looks if you say “yuck” instead of “Beurk”. Even animals aren’t safe. Ducks don’t quack and pigs don’t oink. One of my classes (embarrassingly) had me imitate the entire animal kingdom because they found the differences so peculiar. At any rate, it’s definitely worth looking these interjections up because they’re a huge part of language.
3. Facial Expressions
The french are quite facially expressive people. It’s quite entertaining as an outsider and all expats notice this right away. My favorite expression is the dumbfounded look my students give me when they have no idea what I’ve said. They widen their eyes and puff their cheeks like a blowfish…it’s hilarious. You can see that look HERE at 0:49. But what struck me most is how uniform that look is, which indicates that is cultural more than it is individual.
4. Hand gestures
The french start counting with their thumb instead of their index finger, the “Ok” sign actually means “zero”, and rubbing your nose means you’re drunk. Hand gestures are definitely cultural. It’s recommended before going to any country to look these up because you may think you’re giving the thumbs up but instead you’ve just started a fight in public. Typically, you won’t find these cultural differences in a textbook.
One day I asked a friend what she thought of this guy she was seeing.
Her response: “Il est sympa, mais il se regarde le nombril (He’s nice but he looks at his bellybutton).
My first thought: “….That’s weird”
What I didn’t know (and didn’t find out until a week later) was that se regarder le nombril is an idiomatic expression that describes someone as egotistical or narcissistic.
Idioms are a little harder to prepare yourself for because the possibilities are endless and often the expression holds very little indication of what it actually means. However, whenever you hear one try hard to remember it and challenge yourself to use it in another situation.