My most memorable language barrier situation took place in a Subway, just a week after my arrival to France. Subway might seem like an odd choice given all the amazing food available in France, but on this day, I had chosen to go there after having seen a poster that said (or so I thought), that subs cost only one euro. It seemed like a good deal, and I was hungry, so I thought to myself, “why not.” Ordering the sub was a challenge given that Subway has customers go down the line and indicate every ingredient that they want. I ended up having to reference ingredients with names such as, “the orange cheese,” because I wasn’t sure of their actual French names. However, the real challenge presented itself when I got to the cash register and realized that the sub sandwich was going to cost more than one euro. I tried to ask the cashier, in the best way I knew how, about the poster I had seen outside, and she started talking very quickly in French. Typically, I do not have a probably understanding when people in shops or restaurants when they speak French. But this was just after my arrival and this woman was speaking in warp speed. Confused, I paid for my sandwich and walked outside to eat it. It was then that I looked back at the poster and realized that, far from one euro sandwiches, the restaurant had been featuring a promotion for one euro off! In that moment, I felt so dumb!
Another time, I was in a coffee shop with my friend. I wanted to indicate to the cashier that we would be paying separately, so I said, “nous sommes séparées.” I had already been to this coffee shop several times, and the barista knew me. He laughed and said, “the way you said that, it’s like you’re a couple who’s getting a divorce. We say, ‘nous allons payer séparément.’” I learned something that day, and I haven’t made the same mistake since!
When I first got to Rennes, I remarked that I heard two words/phrases quite often — “truc” and “du coup.” Since prior to this experience I had learned French in a largely academic context, I was not at all familiar with these casual words. For any future students in Rennes, here’s something to know— “truc” is vague word that essentially just means “thing,” and the people here love to use it. “Du coup” means something like “so” or “consequently.” It’s another phrase that I hear very often, and it often has no particular meaning and serves more as a filler, kind of like how, in English, we use the word “so” to take a pause while we’re thinking. Removing “du coup” from a sentence wouldn’t change its meaning very much, but throwing it into your vocabulary in everyday speech is a good way to sound more casual and more like the native speakers.
One of my biggest goals in going abroad was to improve my language skills, and it was really the more casual, everyday type of interactions that helped me do so. Even when I did make (sometimes embarrassing) mistakes, people were usually nice about it, and it gave me a chance to learn and improve— I’ll never imply that I’m getting a divorce at a coffee shop again!