When was the last time you fell down, flat on your face? I mean, embarrassing yourself, or feeling a little bit like a colossal failure? Not too long ago, near the end of the semester, I was teaching my editing students the vocabulary of print media layouts. And I totally blanked out on a word that I’ve known and used, let’s say, for at least 20 years. It was a complete "earth, swallow me" moment. I had to keep reminding myself that I’ve already forgotten way more than they’ll learn over the next 5 years, in the best case. Still, I had to make a conscious effort not to dwell on that inglorious faux pas.
Sometimes people are impressed with my language skills. I speak Spanish fluently, and pretty decent French and German. I also know a smattering of Italian. Those of you who learned foreign languages the hard way, i.e. in school, know that to learn a language you have to be willing to make a total and complete fool of yourself, not just once, but over and over.
That’s why some of my friends, who’ve studied languages, and even lived abroad, still don’t speak the other language — they’re waiting to get it down perfectly before opening their mouths to parler.
Here are just a few samples of my numerous language failures (feel free to share your own by leaving a comment!):
When I had recently moved to Germany, I was ordering chicken at the meat counter of a small grocery store. I couldn’t remember how to say "chicken" in German. So I made chicken-like gestures and sounds. It was quite a sophisticated performance. The worst thing is that the 2 ladies working at the counter didn’t even laugh. But, I now know the word in German. It’s Haenchen.
In Venezuela I once announced that my step-grandfather had burned down a company, when I meant to say he founded the company.
I impressed my then mother-in-law, when I was a new bride, by using the word culo, which is perfectly acceptable reference to one’s derriere in Spain, but highly vulgar in Venezuela. (I have actually used vulgar words many times in inappropriate settings but simply repeating what I had heard, without understanding the nuances of context. Curiously, I am not the kind of person to use colorful language in English, I’m totally "what the heck".)
I have asked a waiter in perfect Spanish for a glass of water, only to have him ask me to repeat my request, several times, until he finally understood what I was saying.
I once told a story to some friends about a missionary (misionera,) only I used the word "waitress" instead (mesonera.) No wonder they were confused.
So, what’s the point? Falling flat on your face makes a great story, but it’s usually not that fun while it’s happening. But how many times do we hold ourselves back, waiting to get it perfect to avoid falling down flat on our faces?
As many of you know, I’ve just purchased my first home in my own name. Rather than pay $5,000 to hire professional painters, I convinced my fiance, Ruben, to help me paint and save all that money! We are both pretty exhausted at this moment, and still have to move all my stuff from the condo to the house and supervise a bathroom remodeling project. And did I tell you I’m terrible at painting? Fortunately I’m pretty good at taping so I am somewhat useful in this project.
Next time, we’re hiring painters. Lesson learned. We’re making progress. When you remember the times you fell flat on your face, have a good laugh and pat yourself on the back. What you feel is a failure is really the only path to authentic success.