There are thousands of different languages spoken worldwide. Within one language there are multiple accents, dialects and differences.
When signing up to study a language, you’re signing yourself up to learn the general rules for writing, reading and speaking in that language.
That’s what I did five years ago. Five years ago I signed up to study French. I wanted to learn how to speak French, read in French and write in French. For five years I studied, struggled and succeeded in this language, and I decided that it would be best to study abroad to truly test the skills I felt I had acquired.
But when you sign up for a study abroad program, you’re signing up for more than just one language. You’re signing up for a different culture, a different lifestyle and another type of language: body language.
Oddly enough, it’s not solely the lack of a legitimate French accent that gives us American students away as étrangers. It’s not necessarily the fact that we sometimes have a more American way of dressing. We actually give ourselves away as Americans through the body language that we use.
There are the obvious things, of course, like that awkward moment where you go to shake someone’s hand and they go in for the ever so popular bisous, or kisses.
But there are also the subtle things, things I wasn’t aware of until I started preparing for this trip, like the way Americans smile when passing strangers or sometimes rest their hands in their laps while at the dinner table, whereas the French almost always keep their wrists on the table and always use a fork and knife for dinner.
Even though there are multiple resources on culture that are available to foreign students, I’m learning new things from my host mom every day about what my body language might be telling her.
I know many people who are better at French than I am, and I know many of them don’t consider themselves fluent, but I never understood why. But maybe, just maybe, it was that missing language that keeps them from being 100 percent comfortable with the language.
This difference isn’t just with French, either. Every culture has its own form of body language, of speechless communication. What may be seen as a polite gesture in one culture can very well be something very vulgar in another. Smiling at a stranger, which may seem courteous to American students, may look strange and nonsensical to some Europeans.
It is important for people to learn other languages. It is important to learn how to communicate with people outside of your inner circle. But it is also important to take the time to learn about the culture and the body language of that culture. Because then you really do have the opportunity to become fluent in another culture, rather than just a language.
Danielle Limon is a freshman studying journalism and a columnist for The Post. Bite your thumb at her at firstname.lastname@example.org.