Sunday afternoon. I’m walking down the street on my way to the gym. A woman approaches me. We have a brief conversation:
She: “Excuse me. Do you know if there’s a shop nearby?”
Me: “Yeah, there’s a Tesco down the road.”
She: “Great, thanks.”
We go our separate ways.
Five minutes later I realize that something unusual just occurred. How did I know she was looking for a supermarket? For all I know she could have been looking for a bakery, a florist, a newsagent. Even then I could have helped her out: the road I was referring her to is home to a wide variety of shops. But no. I assumed she was looking for a supermarket, and she was.
This is not evidence of my superior mindreading skills. It is but one example of the millions of times a non-native speaker learns something new. Many years ago, when I learned my first English words in school, I assumed that there was some endpoint I would eventually reach. That at some point in the distant future I would master the language and could go off into the real world, chattering away.
I was wrong. Of course, school in any form is a good starting point if you want to learn a new language. As every teacher will tell you, grammar and vocabulary don’t come naturally to most people, and you need the guidance and feedback of an experienced tutor to make progress. We can all learn how to order a beer in a few minutes, but we can only have a more sophisticated conversation in a second, third or fourth language if we bother to study it properly.
That said, the old saying that practice makes perfect is also true. Over the years I have come to realize that only practicing your skills in a classroom setting is simply not good enough. Sure, you’ll get more and more proficient as you go along. But there are so many things that will not and cannot be covered in a classroom: idiom, slang, dialect, expressions, figures of speech, jokes, metaphors, and swearwords. And we all know how important swearwords are.
“Shop” was one of the first English words I learned. But after a few years of interacting with native speakers, I have discovered that it can have a wide variety of meanings, at least to UK-based people:
- “I’m just going to the shops” – This involves a brief trip to the corner shop to get milk, a newspaper, or another necessary but small item
- “We went shopping together” – A day spent browsing high street shops, looking for things one does not really need, spending a lot of money
- “I’m shopping around” – Means one is looking for a specific item and comparing different options to get the best deal
- “I’ve got some shopping to do” – More time-consuming than “going to the shops”, but also more focused than “shopping”: one is usually looking for something specific (i.e. a birthday present)
Realizing that one simple word can have many different meanings is a small epiphany in itself. Noticing that you’ve moved to the next level and are using those different meanings without thinking is another. It may be impossible for non-native speakers to reach the same proficiency as natives: accents, errors and knowledge gaps will never go away. But there’s nothing like realizing you’ve reached a new milestone: I can now express my feelings, make people laugh, and show them the way to the shops. What more do you need?