I was a Mormon missionary in Puerto Rico when I was 19. Missionaries that need to learn a foreign language spend extra time in the Missionary Training Centre learning basic phrases and memorising the lessons in the foreign language. I knew some basic Spanish from high school classes, but I wasn’t fluent. I remember giving my first lesson in Puerto Rico. The family interrupted me and said in English: “I’m sorry, we don’t understand English very well.” I answered in English: “I know, that’s why I’m speaking Spanish.” They were polite about it, but I was obviously not speaking understandable Spanish.
I took some French classes when I moved to Belgium. I think that I was mentally wired to the fact that my conversations are either in English or in Spanish. My French instructor would say: “that’s good, now repeat it in French instead of in Spanish.” I had some Dutch classes the first year I moved to Amsterdam. I never mastered the proper pronunciation; but the class helped with understanding some simple conversations. Learning a new language is one of the adventures of moving to another country. It can be fun, but it can also be frustrating on both sides of the conversation.
I didn’t need to learn a foreign language when I moved to Scotland. But, I underestimated how different the accent is and how many words have different meanings. Some of the different meanings can be embarrassing. I didn’t understand why people were blushing and laughing when I was shopping for a fanny pack (I won’t say what a fanny is in the UK but it’s not a butt) or when I went to the dry cleaners and asked if my pants (underwear) were ready.
When I lived in Brussels and Amsterdam, I avoided asking people to translate a question they just asked in the local language into English. They don’t expect Americans to translate from English into French or Dutch when they visit the US. Although, most Dutch speak perfect English. If I didn’t understand 100%, I would answer in the affirmative “oui” or “ja”. I figured that would be the safe answer and less frustrating than saying I don’t really understand.
Saying “yes” didn’t always work well for me in Scotland when I didn’t understand the question. I said “yes” to subscribing to the weekly Kilmarnock Standard; I said “yes” to having milk delivered twice a week; and I even said “yes” to donating £10 a month to breast cancer. These aren’t bad things, but I probably would have said “no” if I understood better.
One day, I went for a walk in our neighbourhood in Kilmarnock. I greeted a lady who was retrieving her bin (trash can) from the kerb. She said: “they say that it might snow this afternoon.” It was a warm, sunny spring day so I thought that maybe it was just small talk about the weather. I hadn’t yet experienced the fact that you can have four seasons in one day in Scotland; and to my surprise, it did snow later that afternoon.
Once I got home, a neighbour knocked on our door. He was an older man (probably in his 80’s). When we first moved in, he gave me some strict instructions on the importance of putting the correct colour of bin on the kerb only after 5pm for collection the next morning. It must be removed from the kerb as soon as possible after the rubbish (trash) is collected. He made me kind of nervous about getting it wrong.
I answered the door, and he said something that I did not understand at all. I had already brought in our bins so it couldn’t be that. “Yes” didn’t seem to work here, so I said: “can you believe that they are expecting snow this afternoon?” He got irritated and said: “well are you going to pick up your package or not?!” Apparently, a package came for us while I was away and he had signed for it and was wanting me to get it since it was pretty heavy. It turns out “yes” did fit here.
I think that I’m understanding more every day. The lockdown has limited the number of social interactions so it’s hard to know for sure. I think that I will have integrated if I use the word “aye” in a conversation without even thinking that it sounds odd coming from me.