Gimme 5 minutes to ‘splain!

22 Jul

Sometimes [I think] we forget that language is the basis of culture. It shapes our experiences and in how we relate to others. If living in another country is not adventurous enough, learning the language can seem like climbing Mount Everest! I can honestly say, I am about halfway up the mountain and on good footing. Have I slipped and almost fallen? Absolutely! Many of these moments, I have humbly chronicled here (in my blog) for your amusement, but more importantly, in hopes that you will be able to step outside of your own culture and laugh with me (OK, ‘at me’ is fine too). Before moving to France, I was in love with all things French, still am. I thought there is no more beautiful language in the world and it has always been a dream of mine, to speak French. Well, again, “be careful what you wish for..”, as the saying goes! I have made every language gaff imaginable, made people laugh, cry and even angry at times. A veritable plethora of human emotions, I have insighted in complete strangers, new friends and family. I guess there is a sense of freedom in knowing that you’ve screwed up so much, that whatever comes is nothing new and hence; nothing you can’t handle. French truly is a beautiful language and I stand by my conviction, but it is certainly not easy to learn, not even for the French. For instance, there are multiple uses for the same word such as ‘toilette‘ (besides the obvious) and different words for the same thing, such as: ‘armoire’ (free standing cabinet), ‘placard’ (built-in cabinet) and just plain old ‘cabinet’ (hanging cabinet, like the kitchen type).

The biggest difference between French and English, is the subtlety. In French, you have to learn the differences between the types of cabinets and other seemingly redundant words, that have very close to the same meaning. In English, not so. You may learn English quicker than French to start, but the subtleties of English come later. After the basics are mastered, the nuances can then be put in place. It seems bizarre to me that a French child could know the subtleties of cabinets and toilets, but somehow, they do!

My poor hubby is constantly bombarded with questions by me about language differences between French and English, and he takes it like a champ. It’s like having a kid ask, ‘but why?’ all the time I would imagine. Sometimes he looks at me like I was just possessed by a body-snatcher (as in, the ‘invasion of’) to “I’m so proud of you, sweetie”, which I must say, is the one I prefer most. But either way, he supports my learning, even after a long day at work. Again, I can only compare it [my situation] to how a parent must feel when they have worked all day, feeling exhausted and your child needs help with their homework. That is probably the most important thing for any expat to know and commit to heart, is that you cannot do it alone. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating; we cannot succeed as expats without the support of those in-country, whether it be a supportive spouse or someone at the local market who is willing to work with you on your language skills.

In learning this [philosophy] early on, you will curb many feelings you will experience that are natural progressions of learning in an expat environment. The ‘imposter effect’ which is best explained as a chronic feeling of pretentiousness. You feel like the new kid on the playground, waiting for someone to pick you to play. At some point, your pronunciation exceeds your actual knowledge and this is the most difficult time. Why? Because you sound like you know what you’re saying, more so than what I call ‘tourist’ language.

When you learn enough to remove some of your native accent and construct simple sentences in present tense, people think you understand EVERYTHING they are saying. This is the imposter syndrome at its full-blown capacity! You feel like you have ‘faked’ your accent enough to trick them into thinking you know more than you know. And as a result, you feel awful that they have to repeat what they’ve said (especially when it’s very personal) which makes them feel more embarrassed than you. To combat this feeling, I would simply nod and smile and I got through most of it, but I still felt terrible that they walked away thinking I understood them, when really, I didn’t. There are just so many times you can ask someone to ‘parlez doucement’ (speak slowly) or repeat themselves, before it becomes awkward. In a nutshell, the expression, “fake it ’till you make it” is necessary to push past these insecurities. I now understand that in the end, most people are happy for you to just listen, nod and smile anyway. My takeaway from this? You can still claim to be a good listener even when it’s not your native tongue; you’re still paying attention to what they’re saying, even though you don’t understand everything. To listen to one another without judgement or interruption, transcends all understanding and never needs explaining.


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7 responses to “Gimme 5 minutes to ‘splain!

  1. sartenada

    July 22, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    Very interesting!

    I have never been studying French in University, only during three years in my school dating back about 50 years. I started to read French books using my dictionary and I think I succeeded. Grammar and other things, well, I do not know, but I use French as Spanish in my posts. Never anybody has complained about mistakes although my posts are full of mistakes. Who cares, if people understand my texts and see my many photos in every post.

    Happy blogging!

    • expatriotgames

      July 22, 2011 at 1:34 pm

      SI Sartenada, usted está tan bien! Gracias por leer y tomar el tiempo para comentar!

  2. Joan Wolckenhauer

    July 22, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    You “splained” it very well! I can always empathize. In school and in the university we always studied literature, history, etc. I NEVER learned many practical, everyday words! i always enjoy your blog. When are you moving to England?

    • expatriotgames

      July 22, 2011 at 2:55 pm

      Hey Joan! Thanks for commenting! We move in a month…so, the blog will undergo a bit of a facelift, but moving from France will not take it out of my blog experience. There is so much more to talk about from my time here, but somehow, I will find a way to make room for both! Thanks for asking, Vous êtes merveilleux! ;0)

  3. Joan Wolckenhauer

    July 22, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    The best of luck to both of you with regard to your move to England.

    We were transferred four times. I do NOT move as gracefully as you!

    I loved one place, liked one place, HATED one place and am very neutral about where we are now. Since we will be here forever, I need to “bloom” where I have been planted for the past 19 years! Still no “buds!” LOL!

    • expatriotgames

      July 23, 2011 at 9:37 am

      Joan, really? I think you strike upon something very crutial and I would like to know more, as to why you think that is the case. Would you be willing to either write a guest post for me or let me interview you to write your story? Let me know if you are game. You’ve led such a wonderful and fascinating life (from what I know thus far) I would think others (not only me) would be riveted to what you have to say about the many transitions. Let me know if you are interested! And THANK YOU SO MUCH for your well-wishes and the lovely compliment, your comments mean more than you know!

  4. followingcaminho

    September 23, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    You go girl! I really love your efforts, it shows that you both love to learn the language and that you respect the new country and its inhabitants. Wonderful! 🙂
    I spent the summer working in Spain and sometimes I had to deal with the French… it was A nightmare! Not only they don’t speak foreign languages (Puedo ayudar en espanol? No? English, maybe? Italiano?) but don’t even try to do any effort to expain things! I got so frustrated at times, argggghh… When it’s about this issue, I truly dislike the language and the people.


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