When I was 18, I got my first summer job at the restaurant. My duties were working at the cash register, delivering food to the customers or washing dishes. I worked in a small place where the typical customer was Finnish and usually local. One day two men approached me and asked about the menu in English. I started to explain the menu: meatballs and smashed potato, fish soup and… a man cow. Yes, I said “a man cow”. I couldn’t remember the word “bull” and I had to make up something! Well the men got something to eat and at least we had a good laugh.
At the age of twenty, I went to New York to visit my friend who was an au pair in New Jersey. I hadn’t seen my Finnish friend for a long time and I wanted to remember her with a Finnish gift, chocolate and rye bread. I was a little bit nervous at the airport because the security arrangement is quite strict in the USA. They wanted to know what I was about to do in New York and even took my fingerprints. The customs officer asked if I had groceries with me. I thought I said clearly that I had some rye bread with me as a gift for my friend, but something went wrong in my spelling, because the customs officer asked me what fruit I had. I had to say the word “bread” several times until he knew what I meant.
When I was younger, I was quite shy to use English, because I was afraid that I would be embarrassed if I made some mistakes. In the situation where there was someone else to speak English, I let others do it. But sometimes there is not anyone else to save you from these kind of situations. Sometimes you have to speak foreign languages to handle the situation, even though you are not sure what you are about to say or how. And in these two cases with the bull and the bread, I learnt that it is not about speaking perfectly and fluently, it is about trying.
After these cases I have travelled abroad many times and I worked in a place where the customers were mainly tourist from other countries. And even though I still don’t speak English or other languages perfectly, I make mistakes and say funny things because I don’t always know the right words, there haven’t been a situation that I couldn’t have handled. Even though you don’t always understand or you don’t know the right way to say things, you will be okay, and usually the right message will be delivered. Without trying, you cannot succeed. And in the end what is the worst scenario? I think, it’s having a good laugh. So it is a win-win situation!
Text by Elsa Koistinen, a student of Independent Study in English course