Adventures in Language Learning: The Kindness of Strangers

vietname street crossing

Once you start crossing the street, do not stop. You are a pebble in the river of traffic!

I repeat my coworker’s advice to myself as I stand near a crowded avenue in Hanoi. The buzz of a hundred motorcycles rattles my ears; cars approach from all directions. Across the street is the reason I came to Vietnam: a tall office building where one of our most important customers is based.

The tide of traffic remains relentless. But there’s no intersection in sight, and time is running short.

You are a pebble.

I set my eyes on the building across the way, lower my foot from sidewalk to street, and take my first step. My briefcase and presentation materials suddenly feel like bricks in my arms.

Do not stop.

I take a few more steps, bracing for almost certain impact, when the motorcycles buzzing towards me start to lean to my left and to my right, flowing past me like water. Cars slow their pace to let me get across. I watch the river with absolute amazement.

Unharmed, I step up onto the other sidewalk and swagger into the building lobby. As I approach the elevator, however, my amazement quickly morphs into anxiety. Parting the river was only my first task. The next challenge will be far more daunting.

***

When it came to travel, I considered myself intrepid. When it came to languages, I considered myself unstoppable.

After majoring in French and living in France for a year, I could fool French people into thinking I was a local. A few years later, I moved to Colombia and made mastering Spanish my new ambition. For the first few months, progress came at a frustratingly slow pace. I struggled to roll my “rr”s and was totally confused by the local slang. Nonetheless, I would not be denied the title of trilingual.

What actually helped me most in South America was that the Colombians I met would do just about anything to be understood. Hand gestures, miming, weird noises — no tactic was too embarrassing, no effort was too great. Some people would just repeat the same sentence really loudly — which wasn’t particularly helpful, but their heart was certainly in the right place.

These days, as Lead Customer Success Manager at Voxy, I put my language learning to work helping my customers reach their business goals. Almost every day I get the chance to write emails, do presentations and conducting meetings in French or Spanish. Growing up, one of my life goals was to speak another language. Now I was trilingual and doing business all over Europe and South America. I can go anywhere, I told myself boldly. I can do anything!

***

The directory next to the elevator is, naturally, all in Vietnamese. There are no offices on the ground floor — the lobby is totally empty, not a soul in sight. I fumble for my phone, but my hands are full with materials for the meeting. Sweat starts condensing on my brow.

Suddenly, a cleaning person exits a stairwell nearby. She also has her hands full: two bulky garbage bags in each hand. I glance at her nervously, then at my watch — the meeting is going to start any minute.

The time has come to channel my inner Colombian.

“Excuse me,” I shout out, probably a little too loudly for the silent office lobby. “This office…what floor?” I jab at the air with my elbow towards the directory. She stares at me blankly.

I shuffle closer to the sign. I actually nudge the wall twice, then pivot around and strain my neck in the direction of the elevator. She raises her eyebrows and smiles, then responds quickly — in Vietnamese.

I exhale sharply. Do not stop, my inner Colombian whispers.

Turning to face her, I say the name of the customer slowly and begin counting the floors, nodding my head and jutting out my white-knuckled fingers with each number. One…? Two…? Three…? Finally she nods, puts down one of the bags, and holds up three fingers.

I smile at her from ear to ear and bolt to the elevator, sweat streaming down my face.

~

Situations like this may be few and far between these days. Our phones can translate any phrase; our apps can hail cabs for us, order food for us, pay our bills and set our reminders. But in case you find yourself in a strange new land, with technology out of reach and a dire need to communicate, nothing is more precious than the courage to ask questions and the kindness of strangers who take the time to respond.

Adam is Lead Customer Success Manager at Voxy. Since 2015, he has successfully implemented Voxy at more than 50 companies and English schools worldwide. Before joining Voxy’s Customer Success Team, Adam worked as a virtual instructor and live chat agent, where he helped hundreds of users work through technical issues and reach their English goals. He has a BA in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan.