Monday, November 07, 2016

Lingua French-a

You've finally arrived, you precocious little polyglot from middle America, you.  Armed with a suitcase you've packed, unpacked and repacked for the last 6 months, a brand spanking new passport (because our neighbors don't care), a Eurail Pass,  the required English/Your Second Language Here dictionary and/or app; and sporting a t-shirt with a maple leaf that screams "I'M AN AMERICAN TRYING TO NOT LOOK LIKE ONE", you have landed somewhere overseas (probably in Europe) where the primary language is not shared by Shakespeare and the commercial flight industry, ready to show off your 1-12 or so years of classroom grammar and of course study of relevant literature, encompassing fond memories of "Sur le pont d'Avignon", "Ist das nicht ein Schnitzelbank?", "Cielito Lindo" or the "Gena Krokodil Song" (I think that about exhausts the foreign languages taught in American schools).

You're full of spit, vinegar, and confidence and have practiced all the important phrases..."How much does that cost?", "Could you tell me where the toilets are?",  "The key to my room is not working," "Well, as for me, I think Kierkegaard is a little passe, don't you?" "You can touch me here, but not there," etc.

You know one of your immediate needs is to get your Eurailpass validated (I think they still do that these days).  So after you and presumably your traveling companions have navigated the way from the airport to the train station, you take a deep breath, and walk over to the relevant booth, ready to have your first real conversation with someone that MUST be in your target language, say in that language (you think) "I need my Eurailpass validated please," and a cynical looking, annoyed looking, and very official looking guy or gal behind the glass says "Can I ccchhhelp jooo?" as though they're  ordering someone to get a dead mouse off his or her desk.

You've been Englished.  And it won't be the last time, Snowflake.

The first time it happened to me was before anyone reading this was likely to have attained majority, 1984 to be exact, in Trier, Germany, then West Germany.  Or Koblenz.  Regardless, there I was, 12 credits shy of a Degree in German from a school world reknown for....well, not languages but for agriculture, which is often used by Germans.

I was certain I was going to completely pass for someone who grew up in the land of Schiller and Rilke.  And it really was at a train station and it really was the conversation I had to ensure that my little card was stamped so that I would have enough time during my stay to pop on a train anytime I liked, but before I ran out of some other kind of deadline I can't remember.  And it really made me cry.  But not after I mustered up all the courage I had to say,  "Ich muss...ich muss meine...meine RR-R-ailpasse,...."

The guy rolled his eyes, I swear.  "You have to validate it. Here.  Turn it over. " He stamped my pass, and I walked away, entirely put in my place.

My friends, most of whom had a bit more experience in the language, consoled me and encouraged me to keep trying.  "Most people are grateful you even try, but these train officials..."  Yada yada yada.

My next experience in being Englished....and all that I've had for the past 20 years...have  been in France.

Because I love the French language and because I've had some success communicating with it (much less than with German, which I studied later), and because I have had incomparable memories in France---on the Riviera, in the small towns of Provence, in Normandy, and in the north west--I've made pretty good on my promise to not speak English in France.  Kind of out-Parising the Parisiens, I have thrown French back ---good French, I thought, but in all likelihood sometimes really bad French--in the faces of shopowners, fellow subway riders, train conductors, and museum guides who meet my "Combien se coutes ces pattiseries?" or "Pardonnez-moi, ou se trouve l'escalier?" with snotty "Zey are too hhheurohss" or the like.  Let my "Merci" or "J'en voudrais un" be a masked "Si vous voudrais parler anglais avec moi, il faut aller chez moi."  Let them see I'm not to be trifled with.  And most importantly, let them see that not all Americans trying to learn a language don't value the need to practice in vitro.

My theory was, I want to speak this language better, and I'll be damned if someone bent on showing me my frivolous attempts at it are unworthy of it is going to stop me.

I should interrupt here to clarify what I am not referring to.  Most people in France, none of whom live in Paris, apparently, are either unintrigued by someone speaking their language with an accent, or are charmed by an American's--particularly young American's--attempts to use their language for all the right reasons: to be polite, to engage in the culture they're exploring, and yes, damn it, to take advantage of the best labaratory they'll ever have for growing their skills.  They will either answer you without a sense of annoyance in French, or they may ask you if you prefer to speak English.

But these are not the people who ENGLISH you.  Being Englished is like being  mansplained, except probably more than 50% of the time French Englishers, unlike mansplainers, really do know more about the subject in question (French) than you do.    And that was one of the reasons for my change in approach during my visit to France of October 2016.

I don't know if it was right, wrong, polite, or impolite, but unless I was doing something I was very familiar with (telling a pharmacist I had a headache and asking for their best anti-migraine pill, for example), or unless someone appeared to be enjoying talking to me (the manager of  the only boulangerie I found...what is going on with that country when you can't find a baguette to save your life?), I said "Parlez-vous anglais?" a lot.  Any time I found myself struggling to remember a word or a grammar rule, basically.

There is another reason for this.

I practice written and heard French a lot..  I'm not saying that to boast, I'm saying it's a lot of fun and relaxing for me.  Languages to me are like the secret codes in the messages we used to give each other as kids

But a strange thing happened 2 years ago.  Instead of just sitting by myself at home rereading l'Etranger or completing excercises in an old grammar book, or listening to a broadcast in French, I began meeting with a group of people through that gets together each week. 3 people are usually always there, me, the leader, and The Star (she is the best and I like her, I'm not trying to be snotty).  There are often more.  It quickly became clear to me that, at least when just the three of us are there, my French is the worst.  I've also noted that, even though their French seems better, they still struggle with things like auxilary verbs and vocabulary and "faux amies"--the words that look the same in French and English but mean entirely different things.

So paradoxically, after adding to my practice a weekly group I don't feel more confident about my French, I feel less so.

And I"m not sure if it's a bad thing.  It's true that I should practice each chance I get, but I also need to be a little humble about how well I know another language.  Humility is not my strong suit, especially in the so-called language arts.  I am a recovering English Grammar Nazi (saved from that unpopular lifestye by John McWhorter's lectures on the changing English language), and I confess feeling superior to the English untermenschen I corrected.  "You plebe, using an apostrophe before a plural "s".  It was sort of like my dad's habit of saying, "Your sister isn't mean!" whenever, as a child, I would say "Me an' Kathy did this or that."  But I never inject the humor he did.

I think it was worth experimenting this time to see if I fared better in France, at least as far as being nice to people and getting them to be nice to me, speaking half English and half French.  I'm not sure yet.  I got good service in Chartres and Lilles and varying quality of service in Paris (hostel the first night: awful; hotel on my way back home:  great).  Same as always.  And there's part of me that wonders if I squandered perfectly good immersion time by giving up on my French so many times.

Anglophones who study languages have a terrible handicap in modern times.  Every study indicates immersion is the best way to learn a language, and there's no way to get un-immersed in English.  It's always there.  I remember closing my eyes during my first European trip to avoid seeing English ads.  English pop music is always blaring off radios or ipods.  Even the news agencies get  enamored with whatever the latest US scandal is (this trip:  e-mail gate) and even if they're writing or speaking in French they're prouncing names, politi-speech,and various US policies in correct, always irritatingly correct, English.

Furthermore, English is still somewhat of a lingua franca, often the common language between a Japanese businesswoman and a German businessman, or a Morrocan merchant and a Brazilian buyer.  The market has made it so.  This is despite a lot of anti-Americanism that still persists in Europe and laws that seem to have gone by the wayside to keep English words like "jeans", "Hamburger", "weekend", etc. out of French.  The market has voted with its feet and it really seems to like English these days.  So with no way to escape it, and with a great big ocean separating us between most other languages, language learners in anglophone countries need to create their own means of immersion.  For me, that will be going to sleep with my headphones tuned to French podcasts, speaking French only for 1.5 hours a week, and reading as much as I can get my hands on.  And recognizing when I am lucky enough to be in France that I may have learned a lot about the language....but I still have much to learn.

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