Saturday, March 12, 2011

Language Learning... what it's like so far for Laura

Language learning has always been fun for me! Brent & I are linguists - so of course, we love languages! I've studied a bit of Russian, eight weeks of Thai, four years of Spanish, and I know a few phrases of German (from my dad and grandparents), Dutch (from my mom and grandparents), and Japanese (for some reason...oh yeah, pen-pal from my teen years). I love to learn how to talk to other people! I have a conversational level of Spanish & didn't care in the least bit if I made mistakes while talking with my grandmotherly, Cuban neighbor during the year we lived next door to her. Why? Simply put: it was more important for me to talk with my friend than for me to worry about speaking the language perfectly.

Now that I live in France, language learning is a bit of a different ball park (which, by the way, they don't really have here - baseball, I mean). Language learning has become a whole new game that I must play in order to live here. (Brent had quite a bit of French in school so he has a leg up, and that does help, but it's a bit harder for me to survive when it's my turn to talk.) We have to speak French to buy our daily bread. We have to speak French at the bank, the post, the store, church, the doctor, at parent-teacher conferences (which thankfully I have not had any yet, but will have an appointment for one soon).
At the Post Office

At the Bakery
We have to speak some French to be understood and to succeed. Sometimes it is fun, but mostly it's just a way of life. It's difficult. It's scary. It's sad sometimes. It's life for now. We're told it will get easier.

It's a wonderful thing when I find someone kind enough to try to understand me. This is not always the case. It's also a bit harder to be missionaries in this in-between-the-field and home-assignment phase of life.
Church in Romans, France (Services in French)

At church I have to use French. I have to explain how long we are here, and why. I have to tell people that my kids don't speak French yet. This much I can handle. Then the fun begins. People start talking to me about all sorts of things, which miraculously I can understand a lot of, but I have no way to respond. I can say," I don't know. I don't understand," but I can't say," I understand, but I can't answer your questions yet". People look at me so sadly when I can't answer and then I give a sheepish look.

In my French class, our vocabulary is limited so far to basic things: who we are, what we do, and what we have. This is a tough situation for me. I am in a class of international students - one Mexican guy, two Arab guys, a girl from India, & me. So you can imagine what it's like when I explain myself as a linguist - they look at me with that look that says they are seeing me as having three heads. Then I explain what a linguist is and that my husband is one too, and that we don't have the typical kind of jobs that most people do. When they still don't understand, I then have to reveal that I am learning French to use for when we move to West Africa. Then they ask even more questions when they realize we've brought our kids along on this adventure. So eventually for my classmates to accept me as a somewhat normal woman, I must reveal more information that I can't exactly explain well to people of other religions:
Yes, I am a missionary.
Yes, I work with churches.
Ah-ha! The light bulb goes on for some, but the Arabs then ask more questions. They want to know what a church is. I tell them it's a place to read the Bible and learn more about God. Then they ask what is a Bible. (How many other people have to answer delicate questions like these when learning another language I wonder? I also think about what it would be like if I had another job - something simple to explain in French, like "I am a business woman." But I am not.) I thought about bringing in a Bible to show them, but then I remember my Bible is all marked up and worn from regular use and study. It is not kept pristine like a holy book should be (in the minds of those who follow Islam). So I have to explain that the Bible is our holy book, since they know what that means. Whew!  What a first week of classes!

Explaining my profession was a bit tricky, but then there were other questions later on that made me feel strange - almost less-human. (I wonder if I have ever made a foreigner feel that way in my homeland!)

To practice the verb avoir (to have, in English) we must tell things about ourselves and our lives back home. The dialogue goes like this:

Do you have a car back home?
My answer: No.

Do you have a garage?
My answer: No.

Do you have a garden?
My answer: No.

Do you have a house back home or an apartment?
My answer: No house. No apartment.

They really looked at me weird when I answered that one. I had no way other than in English to explain that I really have no possessions in the States other than what I will send to Africa.

When we reviewed animals' names, my classmates would ask if the French eat certain animals, and then they always asked me if I eat those too (since they are very curious about American ways). Answering those questions was tough, not because of my lack of French this time, but because of the setting. I might offend a Hindu and two Muslims - people I would like to befriend. What do I do? I must speak the truth, but I most certainly will offend. Ahh! Who knew such things would come up here!  I thought I had some more time to prepare my responses if I were only to encounter these questions in Africa, but this is good practice.

(I am realizing that outside of the class, where most of my classmates know a few words of English, I will have no way to answer most normal questions and be understood because my life situation is not really normal - kind of a sobering thought).

We have a lot of fun in French class together, and my classmates are very bright individuals each with different reasons for learning French. I think of all the reasons, mine must be the most unique. =0)

So this are some situations I've come across during weeks one and two of French classes. Oh, yeah, and then after class I get to go home and practice more French.

It's really fun even though it's hard. I'm glad I chose this route even though I had NO idea of what I would be getting myself into. Ha.

Language learning becomes fun for me now in another way: What weird situations can I come across in life and in class next week?

PS: Update Weeks Later... It's great that the more you spend time with people, the smaller your differences become. As you get to know people (like I am getting to know my classmates) even the largest differences are eventually shadowed by the commonality of being human. It's great getting to know my classmates better. I appreciate that they see me as more of a human and a friend each day too. My initial outlook for when I meet people for the first time, shall be changed forever. Always give the benefit of the doubt. Thank you, Lord, for this lesson.

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