Wednesday, August 6, 2008

I don't get it.

I know that I am really lucky to have been able to learn to speak passable French before coming to live in France and then in Switzerland. I'm lucky to have been able to go to University in both countries and take courses in whatever subject I like, from literature to economics and history to translation theory, entirely in French. I'm lucky to have been able to immigrate to Switzerland by choice and not through necessity.

I believe that it is important to be an active member of society in one's host country. And part of being an active member of society means learning the language and being able to communicate with one's adoptive community. If I speak fluent French now, as opposed to the passable French I had when I got off the train in Poitiers five years ago, it is because I have worked hard to acquire it. In addition to attending school in French, I speak French with all my classmates and all the people who live in my residence hall. I read everything I can get my hands on in French, from the newspaper to novels to gossip magazines. I watch TV in French -- both the evening news and other scripted programming to become more familiar with more formal language and unscripted, reality-type shows to better understand familiar language. I listen to the songs and watch the movies that everyone is talking about in order to better understand the pop culture here -- and I hate watching movies! And one of the reasons that I'm excited about my new job is that French is spoken as much as English in that particular workplace.

Now, don't get me wrong. I've got a great group of English-speaking friends in Switzerland. I read the New York Times every morning and solve the LA Times and USA Today crosswords every evening. I enjoy reading novels in English and listening to music in English, and the next movie I want to see is Wall-E, in English. I go to the American Market to buy my favorite breakfast cereal and I enjoy keeping up with my favorite TV shows in the States. I want peanut butter M&Ms and seasons 1-3 of The Closer on DVD for Christmas. And I got my job because I have stronger skills in written English than most.

So here's what I don't get. There was a Franco-Vietnamese family on a game show the other night on TF1. The mother immigrated to France 33 years ago, and all the children were either born in France or immigrated there at a young age. Obviously, all the woman's children had perfect French. But she couldn't understand the questions the game show host was asking her, even when he tried to speak very simply. Her children had to interpret the questions into Vietnamese for her. And she couldn't answer the game show host in French. Her grammar was so faulty, and she lacked so many of the necessary vocabulary words, that she just could not make herself understood.

I don't get it. Why not learn the language of the country where you have lived for 33 years? The country where you have spent the majority of your life? The only country that your children know? How do you take care of all the day-to-day tasks that require communication with others? What hope is there for economic or educational advancement? How could anyone stand to not be able to speak the only language that their children are educated in and speak on a daily basis?

I know that the language barrier is difficult and frustrating to overcome. I know that it is really embarrassing to make mistakes in front of others. I remember my first trip to France -- I was 16 years old and could barely put two words together correctly in French. Our teacher let us split up into groups to explore wherever we wanted to for the afternoon. The only two rules were that each group had to stay together at all times and we all had to be back at the designated meeting place in time to go to dinner. Well, the girl from my group who had the metro map and the directions on how to get back to the meeting place got lost. The other girl in my group became so frightened that she went into hysterics. I had to figure out a way to call my teacher at the hotel to get directions on where to go, but I had no calling card or spare change for a public phone. So I gathered my nerve and walked into the nearest store, and in French I said something along the lines of, "Friend lost. I use phone?" It took awhile for the salesgirl to figure out what I needed, and I was absolutely mortified. And from that point on, I took advantage of my other classmates' stronger skills in French and got them to help me say words and phrases that could help me work through any other situation I might find myself in during the trip. After we got back to school in the States, I spent extra time studying my French lessons and graduated at the top of my class, despite the fact that many of my classmates had studied French for 3 or 4 years longer than I had.

I just don't see how anybody could choose to live at the margins of society like that.


Global Librarian said...

It's not necessarily a choice she made.

Language is hard. And some people have a harder time learning a language than others.

I learned German in high school and college. Because it was a requirement in college to learn a second language, and because I was so obviously struggling, my teacher arranged for me to have testing at the academic assistance program. I have a learning disability (dyscalculia, similar to dyslexia) that makes it harder for me. So I got extra lessons and a private tutor and managed to eke by.

Then we moved here. And I am once again struggling. I can usually make myself understood, but even with my previous knowledge and my current weekly private tutor sessions, I am nowhere near where I should be. It's just really, really hard.

We are going to have a newborn baby in 6 more weeks. I will not have as much time to focus on learning German. I will continue with my lessons, but I am not certain that my German speaking skills will ever go much further than they are right now. Regardless of how long we live here.

It's probably a matter of time before my child is translating for me...

Sunny Lea said...

Hard as I have tried, through 2 years of high school French and 4 semesters of college Spanish, I can still only talk like a toddler and only in present tense most of the time, so I definitely sympathize with global librarian!

Of course, I have a lot of frustration stemming from the fact that my husband acquires language very easily and speaks (are you ready for it?) Spanish, French, some German, some Japanese, Hebrew, Italian, some Yiddish, and some Russian.

I think that's it. I hope that's it.

Rhonda said...

Well I guess you could ask my maid who grew up in Lubbock Texas and barely speaks English. She speaks Spanish. If she needs to call me, her son calls me. He speaks perfect English...I don't get it either!

Princess Cat's Pajamas said...

I would never venture to criticize the ability of a learning disabled person to acquire any given skill, whether language-related or otherwise. That's a completely different set of circumstances.

I know that language is hard, too. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of perseverance. What happens in class isn't anywhere near enough... using what you've learned over and over, every single day, is the only way for it to sink in and take root.

My spoken and written Spanish are quite poor, simply because even though I've taken classes non-stop since I was 12, I've never had the opportunity to work much on my Spanish outside of class. I can read and translate fine, thanks to the constant practice that we get, but I just don't have anyone to talk to on a regular basis.

When someone immigrates to a country where a different language is spoken, though, there are opportunities to read, write, listen and speak at every corner... should one choose to take advantage of them. It definitely forces you way out of your comfort zone. I don't expect people to arrive in their new country and speak their new language well... but I do expect them to be able to understand and be able to be understood well enough to accomplish basic everyday tasks after a few years. Not being able to do so after 33 years is simply unthinkable to me.

Of course, a lot of my opinion comes from the philosophy of the school from which I got my BA. Whether you study at their summer language school in the States or study abroad during the year through their program, you have to sign a pledge to speak no English. The only exception is in the case of a medical or family emergency. You're not allowed to watch TV, surf the internet, read, listen to music, watch movies or talk to anybody unless you do it in your target language, all day and all night, every single day. If you're ever caught doing anything in English, you're expelled from the program. When the only two choices open to you are speak French (or whatever your target language is) or be permanently silent and deprived of all contact with human beings, it's amazing how much practice you get on a daily basis and how quickly you learn.

Susie Vereker said...

You are obviously bright as paint, Kitty, young and enthusiastic. And yes, I made a big effort to learn about five languages too, though mostly not that well. However, you cannot judge the woman you speak of in the same manner. Maybe she came from a very simple traditional background. Maybe her husband wouldn't let her mix with French people. Maybe she was so nervous on TV she forgot all the French she knew. I think the latter is the most likely explanation!

Jana B said...

I don't understand that either... wouldn't that be the lonliest life EVER?? You could never talk to anyone except for your family, and whatever other immigrants you might run into. You couldn't chat with the cashier at the market, with mothers of your children's classmates, with other wives at your husband's company party... you could never work outside your home... imagine how many friendships you would miss!!!!!!!

I am not good at learning languages. I had straight C's in French, have to have each sign repeated more times than you can count when learning ASL,... but really, it's not how easy something comes to you that matters... it's how hard you work at it. I speak Spanish now, enough to form friendships with my wonderful "Mexican family", not because it was easy... but because I am obsessive and never gave up lol

And, truthfully, because I made friends with people who spoke the language... which makes the learning process so much more fun.

If I can do this, while NOT living in a country where Spanish is the main language... I can't comprehend never learning the language of the country you do live in.