Language (& Culture) Lessons at a Train Station

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2016-09-19 Language Lessons at a Train StationThe summer sun was setting over the city as our train rolled into the Gare du Nord, a Paris central train station. I wasn’t in the mood for a cultural lesson.

See, my brother and I were tired after the four-hour train ride from Cologne, Germany. Although it wasn’t that long, we were ready to find a youth hostel where we could crash.

Looking for Shelter

We knew that many hostels closed their doors early in the evening, so we quickly searched the station for an information booth where we could get directions to the nearest International Youth Hostel.

Right in the center of the train station was a booth with the words “Information” in English above the desk.

“Hello. Can you direct us to the nearest youth hostel?” we asked the man at the desk.

“Il est à la gauche devant la porte, the man replied.

Not speaking French, we tried again, “I’m sorry. We don’t speak French. Can you help us find a youth hostel?”

“Je vous ai déjà dit.”

Frustrated, we left the booth and continued to search the station for someone who could help us. We found an exchange bank to get some francs and a little bakery with wonderful croissants that we purchased by pointing and offering our newly obtained money, but neither place had workers with whom we could communicate in English.

I guess we weren’t cute enough

Feeling a little better after having some food, we decided to simply strike out into the city until we found some kind of accommodation. On the way out of the train station, we passed by the same information booth where we had first stopped. Two gorgeous blonde American girls were just finishing up a conversation with the man who would only speak French with us.

“Thank you very much for the information.”

“You’re welcome. Have a wonderful time in Paris,” he said with barely a hint of accent.

We glared at him as we passed, but he merely smiled an inscrutable smile.

An Experiment

Later the next day, after staying at a little pension, we decided to go to a small grocery store to buy some cheese and fruit for lunch. As an experiment, I spoke in Italian to the grocery store owner.

He seemed delighted to try out his small store of Italian on me and offered me a discount on my purchase. It seemed I had unearthed a lesson through these contrasting experiences.

A Dose of Humility

This made me think. Why were Parisians loath to speak English, but eager to speak Italian? Perhaps, I conjectured, Americans are too well known for our arrogant assumption that everyone will speak our language. Many Americans travel the world without ever having studied anything about the language or culture of the countries they visit.

Is it any wonder that some people resent that kind of condescension? I don’t think that we were rude to the information deskman at the train station, but maybe, after a long day of rude Americans, the guy was just fed up with travelers who didn’t even attempt to say “bonjour.”

What are the lessons in all this?

Humility needed. My sense is that genuine humility among American travelers and a few good-faith attempts to learn a smattering of words in a foreign language might go a long way. This might help Americans earn a bit more grace from Parisians as well as others around the world.

We need to be careful and not generalize. Let me also say that this was a one-time experience. We spent several days in Paris during that trip, and I have been to Paris two other times in my life, and every French person with whom I’ve interacted has been gracious and patient with my broken phrases of French.

And to that I say, “Mais au moins je vais essayer.” (At least I’m trying!) Still, some lessons learned!


Have you been in a situation where you were frustrated trying to communicate with someone who didn’t speak your language? How did you deal with the problem? What lessons did you come away with?


Image Credit: Tanya VdB on Pixabay, Creative Commons

Dale DePalatis

Dale DePalatis

Editor & Interculturalist at CultureWeave
The husband of the principal founder of CultureWeave, Dale is a high school teacher of English with an M.A. in English Literature from Stanford University. With a passion for language learning (including Italian, German, and Japanese), he loves the way the brain expands when studying overseas and experiencing new cultures. He also loves reading, traveling, running, and enjoying meaningful conversations about life’s deep questions.
Dale DePalatis
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The husband of the principal founder of CultureWeave, Dale is a high school teacher of English with an M.A. in English Literature from Stanford University. With a passion for language learning (including Italian, German, and Japanese), he loves the way the brain expands when studying overseas and experiencing new cultures. He also loves reading, traveling, running, and enjoying meaningful conversations about life’s deep questions.