Being immersed in a foreign culture day in and day out is certainly excellent blog fodder, particularly when it comes to language. It’s the perfect topic, because as an American expat in Switzerland working at a university, I hear somewhere between two and five different foreign languages spoken around me on a daily basis. While I am definitely getting used to it, it can be a bit disorienting until you get the hang of at least one of them.
So, for the past three weeks I’ve been taking part in a language program organized by the university where I work… I figure I’ll probably become fluent in French faster if I take a more proactive approach than just relying on osmosis.
The program is free, which is great, and also informal, which is even better. The program website provides a social-media type venue for people to post profiles, where they describe their mother tongue and language interests. User A can then match with User B who speaks the language User A wants to learn, and who also wants to learn User A’s mother tongue. Participants can agree on whatever meeting time or place works best for them; no classrooms, exams or forced “partnering up” required.
This really appeals to me, because the great paradox of learning a new language fluently–at least for introverts–is that other people are necessary to perfect the art of conversation. And yet, letting twisted attempts at foreign words escape my lips in front of another human being is embarrassing and anxiety-provoking. I find conversations with new acquaintances in English difficult and exhausting as it is! Take away my grasp of pronunciation and word comprehension, and I’m experiencing a mild nightmare–probably ranking slightly above being naked in public and slightly below forgetting to attend an entire semester’s worth of math classes on the terror rating scale.
And yet here I am, meeting twice a week with a Frenchman recently moved to Switzerland, who wants to improve his English for his job. It is going surprisingly well, and I have the feeling this may be the key to breaking down the Language Wall in my brain. The Language Wall is that barrier that lies between recalling specific vocabulary words and verb conjugations every time I want to say something, and just opening my mouth and knowing how to speak. I’ve felt myself come so very close to the other side of that wall, only to slide backward again after a week or two of not speaking much or forgetting some key grammar rule. To me, breaking down the Language Wall is actually a lot like being able to see the image in one of those Magic Eye posters. At first you have to strain and concentrate, but with time and practice, the meaning begins to emerge, without you being able to put your finger on exactly when the transition happens.
Of course, progressing in my acquisition of French is interesting, but equally interesting is observing someone else learn English. My conversation partner is probably at roughly the same level as I am in French, so he has the basics down but finds it difficult to understand if I speak a little too fast or fail to enunciate. The video linked below actually does a fantastic job of conveying how it feels to be on the wrong side of the Language Wall:
Anyway, I do feel like I am making progress in my French, which definitely feels good. If nothing else, it gives me the confidence to open my mouth and risk making mistakes without so much anxiety, and less anxiety tends to decrease the number of mistakes too.
But that isn’t to say things don’t still get awkward. One day last week I was at one of the deli counters on campus to pick up some lunch. The prepared sandwiches are always pretty good there, so I was scanning the glass case when I was surprised to see some sliced bagels filled with tuna salad. Bagels are not really a “thing” in Switzerland–you can’t buy them in stores or restaurants and I haven’t had one since I left the U.S. I figured I should jump at the chance to eat one while it was in front of me, but I didn’t know if there was even a word for “bagel” in French. So, I looked into the glass case to check the label in front of the tuna bagels, which read “panini.” I thought this was a bit odd, since a bagel sandwich is not really the same thing as a panini, but I just shrugged and figured that this was the closest that the French language could come to describing a delicious bread product with processed meat inside.
When I asked the woman behind the counter in French for one of the “paninis,” she reached to a shelf above the bagels and produced an elongated sandwich filled with ham and cheese. I apologized and corrected her, pointing at the bagels and indicating that this was what I actually wanted to order. “Ah!” she said, looking at me kindly and speaking slowly as though to a child. “Ça c’est un bagel, madame. Voulez-vous un bagel?” I thanked her for setting me straight and paid for the bagel. As I ate it, I reflected that sometimes, learning a new language is not as hard as it might seem…you just have to avoid over-thinking it.