“How do you say ‘thank you’ in Albanian?” I asked the man behind the counter.
I just landed at the Tirana airport and I knew nothing for the first time. I knew nothing of the Albanian language before arriving and was determined to learn basic phrases that would be useful during my stay.
“Faleminderit,” he said slowly.
“Faleminderit,” I replied back, doing my best to imitate the barista.
I was met with laughter in response.
When I first started speaking Spanish to Mexicans in California many years ago this type of thing used to bother me.
I used to take the laughter personally. I thought they were making fun of me for speaking their language. I interpreted their laughter as, “You look like a fool trying to speak our language.”
This is the wrong interpretation and perceiving laughter in this way can hinder your progress and become an obstacle on your path to fluency. You shouldn’t take it so personally.
Over time I’ve come to understand that being laughed at when speaking a foreign language is not a bad thing. People don’t mean to make you feel insecure about your language abilities when they laugh at you.
Most people just aren’t used to hearing foreigners speaking their language. The laughter you receive when speaking their language happens in part because they are surprised to hear a foreigner speak their language.
Native English speakers have a reputation for being proud mono linguists. While everyone else in the world is expected to learn our language if they want to travel, we can get away with only speaking English.
That makes it all the more special when an American attempts to speak a language that is not valued as highly as English. Most Brazilians, Albanians and Vietnamese and others just don’t expect foreigners to speak their language.
The Connection Between Language Learning and Comedy
If you get too caught up in your ego you’ll fail to see how you are perceived by the people around you. One of the roles you assume as a language learner in a foreign country is that of a comedian.
Comedians teach that one way to be funny is to do normal things in a funny way. Language learners unintentionally become funny by saying normal things like, “Hello,” in a way that people are not used to hearing.
If you’re used to hearing a language spoken in a certain way, it sounds funny when someone speaks it differently.
Think about what happens when you hear a French person speaking English in their French accent. They are being perfectly serious when they speak, but due to their accent we laugh. We imitate their accent to our friends and laugh some more. It’s hard not to laugh when someone says an ordinary phrase like, “Where is the toilet,” in a voice that is so different from the one we are used to hearing.
When I first started learning Portuguese, people laughed at me all the time. They weren’t used to hearing an American speaking Portuguese.
Even now after going to great lengths to reduce my accent and sound as Brazilian as possible, Brazilians still laugh at me when I speak. In fact I’ve come to expect the laughter when I say certain things to people, and if they don’t laugh then I start to suspect something is wrong with them.
With experience, I’ve learned which types of things I can say to induce laughter in certain situations. I use this as a way to build rapport with new people I meet, as most people appreciate people who make them laugh.
For example, in Minas Gerais a less than common way for someone to respond to the greeting, “Tudo bem” is to say, “Bãooo.”
If a Mineiro says this, laughter is not likely to ensue. When someone who is clearly a foreigner says this, it’s funny. There are probably only a few thousand foreigners living in Minas Gerais, and not likely more than a dozen who have figured out that bãooo sounds funny to Mineiros. Few of them have heard this joke before.
So the next time a Brazilian laughs at you when you speak Portuguese, try to receive it as a compliment instead of an insult.