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August 14, 2014

Tonight, I went down to Washington, DC for Benny Lewis’ book signing for Fluent in Three Months.

Now, this was one of the two things I was looking forward to over my sabbatical – going on a vacation without the kids and attending this book signing.  Benny, for anyone who’s active in the polyglot community, is a lot of fun and a massive inspiration.  He’s the person I point to when I tell people that anyone can learn a language.  I already owned his prior book, and getting the chance to get a copy of the new one autographed and meet him in real life?  Score.

But things like this are out of my comfort zone.  As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t necessarily feel comfortable going to things where I don’t know anyone – give me a bit to get used to everyone, and I’m fine and will come back, but I’m terrified the first time.  So this was really pushing me, for me to drive the 45 minutes to the Metro, then another 45 minutes on that to get to the bookstore, and I was really, really ambivalent about whether or not this was a good idea the entire way (though more so when I got onto the Metro, since I could just sit back and be my normal, nervous self).

Benny, for what it is worth, is fabulous.  However he appears in his videos, he’s warmer, gracious and more vibrant in real life.  I got to the bookstore early enough to join in a conversation and that made it easier to feel comfortable with the entirely unfamiliar crowd.  And while the first 45 minutes or so were literally straight from his book, the question-and-answer period was brilliant and enjoyable.

But while this was going on, there was a young woman sitting near me who had a black tote bag with the word שלעפ on it, with (schlep) beneath it.  Well, that’s nice and Yiddish.  A few more furtive glances confirmed that she was wearing a Magen David… so I thought it would be safe to at least compliment her on her bag in Hebrew.  Nice, and easy – רציתי לומר שאני אוהב את התיק שלך

So when we split up to get in line to get our books autographed, and I was queued near her, I let it slip free.  “רציתי לומר שאני אוהב את התיק שלך”.  Yes, I gauged it correctly – she could speak Hebrew.  Fluently.  And within forty seconds, I was in over my head, with her going too quickly, using too many words I don’t know.  I fumbled, paddling furiously, and tried to pull my head back above water with the tricks that I know.  I don’t understand.  A bit slower please.  What does that word mean?  I don’t have the words to understand.  What does X mean in English?

Nope, no lifeline.  She slowed down a little, but wouldn’t use an iota of English.  She was trying to express to me that I clearly need to practice more, that the Jerusalem Post has a magazine now for beginners that I might find useful, but she still wasn’t cutting me slack…

Do you speak another language?  Sure, Russian and French.  Okay, I can try French, which I’ve never, ever spoken to a real live person…

Yeah.  No.  It was awful.  Again with the fumbling, the straining, the trying to get my mouth to actually get words out.  And still no willingness to give me any slack…

So then Benny freed up, and I let her cut me in line to get her book signed so I could recover myself a bit before getting up to him.  And when it was my turn, I quickly swapped over to Spanish, where I felt far, far more comfortable, so I wouldn’t at least humiliate myself with a second person.  (And that went fairly well, I think, except for my lingering self-consciousness over having gone in so far over my head.)

And the worst part – of course, I could think of far more to say in French on my way home, when I was less self-conscious.  My Hebrew might have still been fumbling, but I wouldn’t have shot myself so badly in the foot. (Or as I put to the wife, applied a chainsaw to the foot, ankle and leg all at once…)

I really have to figure out why I’m having these problems….

  1. Aw, you’re always far, far better in your head than in a real-life situation. In my head, I’m fluent in Portuguese. Not so much when trying to talk to my Portuguese teachers’ mother, lol.

    Anyway, I’m really envious of your meeting Benny!!!

  2. Lady Caladium permalink

    I understand the drowning feeling. I’m always a million times better in my head than when I actually have to say anything. I can think of things to say before and after, but never during. It’s like my brain shuts down.

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