How Important Is Tolerance When Learning Languages

I like learning languages. Apart from my mother tongue, which is Czech, I speak Italian and English, and I can get by with German and Croatian. I might even remember a few French words, too.

It’s not much the process of learning languages than actually using it with people which requires one special ability: to be very tolerant.

I always said that. The reason why I want to write about this now, is that I always thought I was tolerant but I’ve been finding out that it’s more difficult than I had imagined.

The first time I realized that this was really a crucial personality trait for anyone being in contact with foreigners, was at grammar school. For a few lessons, there was an American teacher, Abigail, teaching English conversation. I remember a student was telling us what he’d been doing the day before: “I and my brother went to the cinema,” he said.

Abigail got furious. She said that one never says “I and my brother” but “my brother and I” – because we express respect for the other person by putting them on the first place. The student’s version sounded egoistic to her. She couldn’t understand.

The student wasn’t egoistic, he only wasn’t very skilled and translated the sencence word by word. We usually say it just like that. Are we an egoistic nation? I hope not. I feel the logic is different. It would be difficult to explain it here but the crucial thing is, there’s no “respectful” or “disrespectful” version of it in Czech. She, as a teacher, might have assumed that it was just an error, and not lack of respect.

It makes me think of a beatiful “story” (or whatever it is) that I heard so much time ago that I don’t remember whom to credit.

A man from the West has a friend from the East. The man from the West wants to be polite and offers a cigarette. He opens the pack, stretches out his hand and lets the other man take a cigarette. After a while the other man wants to repay the kindness. He opens his pack of cigarettes, takes one out and hands it to the other man.

Why did they do it in a different way? Here’s why. The man from the West puts liberty on the first place. He lets the other man choose. He expresses respect by doing so. If he’d chosen a cigarette by himself, it would have seemed that he didn’t trust the other man enough to let him choose from the pack. The man from the East, however, chose the cigarette by himself, also out of respect, because in his culture one presumed that the other man might be shy and would choose a damaged cigarette. Therefore, he chose the best one and handed it to the other man, to be sure his friend got a good cigarette.

Nice, isn’t it? These are just two different ways of offering a cigarette, both very respectful, but you might get offended if you didn’t know the cultural differences.

I honestly don’t know if people in the East hand cigarettes in this way. I like the moral of the story though, which feels like a huge slap in one’s face, expressing something like “Don’t ever judge anybody because you’re probably being just ignorant“.


I remember other examples of being just ignorant, but with a lack of tolerance, it can become a source of conflict.

I used to have a friend from Schweiz. He spoke quite fluent Czech – one of the few who manage to learn it. I once forgot to meet him on Skype as we had arranged. I remember I was very sorry – almost a strange thing for me because I tend to look for external excuses 🙂 , but that time I was really sorry and apologized to him. I also said “don’t be mad” (in Czech). And he got offended.

When he started speaking to me again (fortunately not long afterwards), he explained that he got particularly offended by the phrase as I not only forgot about the arrangement but I was even ordering him not to be mad. He felt it was his right to be mad and me saying that made him feel like being criticized, like if he had been reacting excessively, which he felt wasn’t the case.

I had a really hard time explaining him it was just an ordinary sentence that we say in these situations. It’s more “Please, don’t be mad” kind of thing, not “stop being mad immediately”. We, Czechs, sort of feel it to be the first, not the latter.


I used to think he and Abigail weren’t tolerant enough. But I’ve found out personally that it’s more difficult than it seems.

I have a lot of contact with Italians. When my half-Italian child was born, I remember a thing that I just couldn’t stand hearing. The Italians have a strange way of calling children within the family. Basically, it you’re a mother, you have a son, but you don’t call him “son”, you call him “mamma”. If you’re a father, you call your son “papa”. An uncle will call his nephew “uncle”. A grandmother will call her grandson “granny”. Etc.

If you have children you know at the beginning it’s a little race for which word the child is going to say first. Is it going to be “mum” or “dad” or something else? In a Czech family, your relatives help you. They say “Charlie, look at your mamma!”, or “Christie, give it to your daddy!”. But in an Italian family, you’re on your own. You have to say “Mamma, do you want to play?”, “Mamma, I’ve made a porridge for you, honey.” etc. Otherwise the child is probably never going to know what he/she is supposed to call you and might even say “grandma” first, or even “uncle”, because an Italian child has so many uncles who, of course, all of them, constantly call the child “uncle”, that it might occur to the child to say just that.

I never confronted anyone about this but honestly I felt kind of irritated sometimes. Of course, it doesn’t matter who the child is going to call first, but the fact that everyone shouts their own “words” at the child all the time makes me think exaclty of the egoism that Abigail saw in the poor student’s sentence…

And how difficult it is for me, normally a very polite person, to use the Italian polite form of address (the Italian Lei) only moderately, as they percieve it rather as a way of keeping distance, while in Czech it’s a must and not using it is really rude?

Getting used to different customs and mentality is much more difficult than just learning the languages, but you can get used to them, and even use their ways of thinking, if you know the differences. That requires simple acceptance. However, if you don’t know the differences, and you can’t ever know everything, that’s when tolerance is needed. Please, be tolerant.


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