When learning a foreign language, in particular in adult age, we get plenty of tips from language experts on the easiest, quickest and most efficient path towards oral proficiency. One of the most frequent tips is to overcome fear and shyness: “be confident, just try speaking, give it a shot”.

Per se, this is a very practical advice and it widely applies to all languages. As a matter of fact, lack of self-confidence and fear of embarrassing ourselves remain the major stumbling block to foreign language proficiency, especially spoken. This is because we are usually afraid of being misunderstood, if not embarrassing ourselves.

We often tend to stop and think over the words we deem most appropriate to the context, we try to create the perfect sentence and prepare ourselves to pronounce it in the most accurate manner possible.

We go through this mental process before we gather enough courage to express our thoughts and this is often detrimental to proficiency and free-flowing communication.  This explains why children are much faster than adults at mastering a foreign language. As a matter of fact, their “obliviousness” frees them from the bondage of fear of mistaking, making fools of themselves or failure to communicate efficiently.

This stumbling lies somewhere between insecurity and awareness of the potential outcome of flawed grammar or mispronunciation on our part.

However, there are people, especially those holding “prominent” positions in the society who seem pretty oblivious to this “bug”. Actually, not only are they not afraid of openly speaking in a language they barely know at most, but they will never miss the chance to strut their oral skills in a foreign language with the sole purpose of adulating their public.

This technique, especially used by public figures before a foreign audience, serves different purposes including “breaking the ice”, connecting with the audience, desire to show that one is “a man of the world” or a sharp skilled subtle communicator.

Whereas speaking in the language of your audience will win its trust and attention, an unconscious use of the foreign language could easily backfire on the speaker.

An example of the first scenario is John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner) speech in Rudolph Wilde Platz, on an official visit to West Berlin. Kennedy used his sharp communication skills to underline the support of the United States for West Germany and his statement in German instantly warmed the hearts of his audience as observable in the footage below.

The following, instead, is an example of poor use of a foreign language to flatter the audience, especially when your grasp of the language is flimsy at its best.  During his 2015 visit to the Milan EXPO world fair, the former US Secretary of State John Kerry fire up the public with his “Pizza che merdaviglia” statement, an unfortunate mix of the Italian words meaning “wonderful” and “shit”.


In both cases, the two American politicians self-assuredly exposed themselves to the pitfalls of using a foreign language they were not fully comfortable with.  However, as we have seen, this light-hearted approach can lead to diametrically opposite results.

It would be advisable for public figures, especially if holding office and on official occasions, to abstain from exposing themselves to the traps of using a language whose command they do not possess.

As a matter of fact, confidence is one thing while negligence is something different altogether. Confidence means being aware of one’s limits but not letting them overpower the trust in one’s abilities. Carelessness instead means throwing caution to the wind and engaging in something we cannot command fully.

In my opinion, your audience will let you get away with it if you are confident and unafraid of showing your limits. An example was Pope John Paul II’s first speech as the Pope of Rome in Italian. He kicked off by apologising in advance admitting his limits as concerned Italian stating: “you will correct me if I mistake”. In spite of his Italian being imperfect, the newly elected Pope of Polish origin was met with cheers of joy once he said those words, even though clearly mispronouncing them, as observable from the video below. The message was simply spot on. I am not perfect, I am just like you.

On the other hand, below are two examples of thoughtless use of a foreign language by two former Italian Prime Ministers, i.e. Matteo Renzi and Silvio Berlusconi respectively. Overconfidence or simply overwhelming desire to strut the stage lead to hilarious, incoherent, if not embarrassing display of their self-proclaimed English oral skills.

In conclusion, there is a very fine line between underrating and overestimating your language proficiency and consequently between winning your audience over or exposing yourself to public mockery. Maybe it’s just a matter of context.

In informal gatherings, like among friends, we have plenty of room for linguistic bloopers and thus we should feel free to let go and express ourselves in a carefree though not careless manner. Actually, clarity and correct use of language are not a priority in this case and hence we should turn this to our advantage to gain confidence in our language proficiency.

Carelessness can be fatal in formal contexts instead. Actually, not only would this behaviour undermine the clarity of the message but there are chances that the speaker will expose him/herself to public derision.

In other words, we must learn to choose when to be carefree when using a foreign language and when to hold our horses and abstain from jeopardising our message.

Hillary Ngaine Kobia

NLS Coordinator

We, at Neno Language Services (NLS), provide translation (intellectual/industrial property translations, patent translations, technical translations, instruction leaflets translations, legal translations, medical translations, scientific translations, financial translations, sports translations) and interpreting (simultaneous, consecutive, chuchotage) services in more than 50 language combinations.