One of the most difficult aspects of learning certain languages is the fact that they have different ways of addressing people depending upon how formal you want to be.
Of course, English can be spoken in a formal or informal way as well, but the big difference is that the likes of Spanish, Italian, Japanese and German all include specific words or verb conjugations that are used when you are in a formal situation.
Learning these words isn’t usually the biggest problem for language students. For example, in Spanish, you just speak to the person as though you are speaking about a third person. This sounds complicated but I found it really easy once I imagined that I was speaking like a waiter in a fancy restaurant (Would the sir like another drink? Is the lady comfortable?) So if this isn’t the problem what is?
It’s Easy for Native Speakers
Well, as English doesn’t have this way of talking in it (except in fancy restaurants) you probably will find that it doesn’t come naturally to you. I am always fascinated to hear how native Spanish speakers switch instinctively between formal and informal conjugations when speaking in a group situation.
Personally, I need to think for a second about the age and social status of the other person before committing to a “tu” or “usted” way of speaking.
The fact that it doesn’t come naturally to us means that the locals must have a good laugh at how foreigners get mixed up when they try to work out whether to be formal or not. I get particularly confused when speaking to young children, as for some reason they often get spoken to in a formal way.
However, the real problems can begin when you make a mistake in a formal situation. One of the worst Spanish language mistakes I made was when I was speaking to my first South American landlady.
She was about 120 years old and was one of the most respected ladies in the local high society. I still wasn’t clear on the distinction between formal and informal language so I started talking to her like I would an old friend of my age. She looked at me as though I had just killed her cat or stolen her jewellery collection, while my local friends wanted the ground to open up and swallow them (or me).
Vital for Work Purposes
If you are planning on working using your second language, then getting the formal part of the grammar right is absolutely essential. Having said that, it is also a hugely important part of everyday life and having it clear in your head will make you a lot happier.
If you want to improve in this area then there is nothing better than a professional, native-speaking teacher to get you thinking and speaking in the right way. Get started today and before long you will be completely comfortable in any sort of social or business situation.