Say What? Edition 2: The Foreign Language Edition

I used to speak four foreign languages at a high intermediate level. Now I can still hold my own in Spanish, but that’s about it. I went to a French conversation group a few weeks ago to attempt speaking French for the first time in about three years and was mortified that I could barely even get Je m’appelle Jennifer to come out of my mouth. But the problem wasn’t that I could only speak in English. Words were tumbling out in all sorts of languages in an unstoppable Babelfish short circuit. The word between would only come to mind in Russian. The word very was relegated to German. I haven’t spoken either of those languages in over six years. It was like I was having some kind of stroke.


So, I signed up for my first ever language lesson via Skype. Make that my first real video chat ever. I used Google Hangouts in my last job and I taught online for a few years, but never with video turned on. Mon Dieu! C’est bizarre! This lovely French gal was right there, 18 inches in front of my face, practically in my home even though she lives in Manchester. It was quite uncomfortable at first. Never mind that I was trying to communicate in a foreign language; the whole experience was strangely intimate. I’ve made some small strides in the last few weeks but still, it’s a bit depressing to have spent all that time and money on lessons and yet be reduced to speaking like a four-year-old (who would undoubtedly start speaking fluently sooner than I will).


But I still read and comprehend French like a proper adult. I listen to several French language podcasts daily (Daily French Pod, News in Slow French, French Etc, and One Thing in a French Day) and understand almost everything. I have a French phrase of the day calendar on my desk at work. It provides some good linguistic stimulation. For example, a phrase the other day used se déplacer, to move. A lot of English comes from French, but so many words and phrases that could be translated literally from French are not. What if they were? Wouldn’t it be interesting to say to displace oneself instead of to move? The elderly woman slowly displaced herself from the kitchen to the living room. Kind of makes her sound like an amoeba.


And my French will always be better than the smattering of other languages I’ve attempted. Over the years I’ve tried Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese. And by tried, I mean at least 3 months of serious study. Which of course is nothing. But I love grammar and so even though I can’t speak or understand a word of these, I remember interesting bits and pieces about how they work. So I have this struggle when I hear people talking about things I know about these languages. Do I jump in and explain or correct people because I know what I’m talking about? Or do I keep quiet to avoid the inevitable expectation that I should be able to speak these languages because I know something about the linguistic elements? This happened recently in my office when some people on my team were discussing how to pronounce the names of our Indian colleagues. They were struggling with the sounds and trying to describe them. I could have jumped in and talked about the hard and soft consonants. I know all about that. But I can’t speak of lick of Hindi anymore. Actually, that was the toughest language to learn because my friends in India rarely spoke Hindi. They all spoke Gujarati and Marathi.


So, I kept quiet. Because that’s what I do. I’m not a talker, even in English, and that’s undoubtedly why my reading and listening skills in foreign languages are light years ahead of my ability to speak. I enjoy silence. Apparently this is unnerving to some people, especially bosses. I’ve been at my new job for almost five months now, and I have already been told by higher ups that I’m very quiet and it’s intimidating. I’ve been told this, a statement generally accompanied by nervous laughter, at just about every job I’ve had. What can I say? In an office of several hundred people, I think there’s more than enough chatter to go around already.


And finally, it’s your turn to weigh in. My family is English, German, and Polish and the area I grew up in was settled primarily by people of similar heritage. Yet in my house, we used the word derrière to refer to our butts (backsides, fannies, behinds, tukhuses, rear ends, etc.) Why a French word? I have no clue. We’re not French. While we’re at it, why tukhus? We’re not Jewish either. Did you use either of these words in your family?


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