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Gimme 5 minutes to ‘splain!

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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“To listen to this message in French, press 1″…go ahead, I dare you!

Courtesy of Google

We’re all familiar with the customer service prompts, “Press 1 to hear this message in English or presione 2 para escuchar este mensaje en español.” I never really thought much about it until recently, but after I read a post from a friend and consequently, saw all the “likes” for the Facebook group: “Press 1 to hear this message in English, press 2 to learn English,” I felt my blood begin to boil!

After reading the post and feeling my blood pressure rise, I thought, you know, I’m not going to dignify that with a response. Well, my good intentions were spoiled again, as I couldn’t keep quiet about a subject that was so near and dear to me as a visitor and now resident in France. It has taken me everyday, a minimum of 2 hours a day for the past year and a half to learn basic French. This is not to be fluent mind you, far from it! Only now, am I at the point where I understand the larger part of conversations when someone speaks to me and at least the gist of those I don’t. Passive understanding (comprehension without having to concentrate) is still (hopefully) yet in my future, but if I continue, by the end of the year (a mere 2 years later) I should be close to academic fluency. To become truly fluent (e.g. nuance, colloquial understanding), will take many more years. I am so grateful, that this opinion is not shared by my French neighbors, as they have been very understanding and helpful with my language mistakes and have tried to help me any way they could. They seem to inately understand how difficult it is to learn French and have complimented my efforts.

The point being, I’m not sure that those who are so insistent that we learn the language of the said, mono-linguist, truly understand the monumental task they have placed upon the heads of others (themselves, obviously excluded by default). I did in fact respond to the post and here is the excerpt;

POST: Happy Memorial Day!  Press 1 for English, Press 2 to learn English

me: Ouch, that’s a tough one on my end! My French has improved, so guess I pressed 2 to learn but am glad the French have been kind while I was learning. Maybe ‘Press 3’ for patience with those of us learning a new language? ;).

monophonic friend: When in France, speak French. When in USA, English baby! Enjoy France. Miss ya.

Well, I do miss him too, he’s a great guy, but I have to say, I was very stunned that someone who I thought to be intelligent, kind and considerate would still feel this way. Deep down, the devil in me one day hopes, that he will go on vacation or live in a place where he will have to learn a (at least some) foreign language to get by OR run into someone who speaks perfect English, who loves to correct him. I can dream, can’t I?

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2011 in Culture Choc

 

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