Saturday, January 14, 2012

On Communication

I love it when French guys ask me if I speak French because they're either too drunk or too busy concentrating on their English to notice I've been replying in French for the last half hour.

Language is an interesting thing. Bilingualism and multilingualism are more interesting things.* I've already given a lot of thought to the phenomenon of code switching over the years, because I have several friends back home who also speak some French and with whom I've had many delightful mixed-language conversations. ( It's also true that I get endless entertainment out of insistantly speaking French to people who either don't know any or have just started learning.) Still, there's something really fascinating about conversation among people who aren't speaking their native language.

Even among the language assistants, there are a lot of linguistic adventures. We tend to default to English, at least within the group of people I see most, because the English assistants are the most numerous and it's the second most widely shared language after French. English skills among the non-Anglophone assistants vary from "I'd really be more comfortable speaking French..." to basically bilingual, but hardly anyone speaks no English at all, although there are a few with whom I can't recall ever speaking English, only French. At least one of the assistants doesn't really speak French, which means there have been times there was no ideal common language within a given group. Often at larger gatherings there are multiple conversations taking place in multiple languages--the Anglophones (and the German-but-no-French speaker) speak English to each other, the Hispanophones speak Spanish to each other, and mixed groups speak French to each other, while some people shift from group to group and language to language). Fascinatingly, despite coming from such a variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds, there is consistently a surprising number of things about French culture over which we can bond as being different from what any of us is used to.

Speaking to French people is also interesting. I work with seven different teachers, all of whom have different habits when it comes to talking to me. There is one who nearly always speaks French to me. There are two or three who nearly always speak English to me, or switch into English after a few sentences even if we start out in French. And the rest speak to me in both languages at different times. There are two (including my responsable) who pretty consistently speak English to me in the classroom and French the rest of the time, but then there are others with whom I'm never entirely sure which language I should be using, especially if I'm initiating the conversation. The worst is when there's a group of people trying to talk to me and some of them are speaking English while others are speaking French. I am at least proficient enough in French that I sometimes don't notice which language I'm using right away--I might answer an English question in French and then turn around and reply to a French statement with English--but if I do notice, or think about it too much, I sometimes get confused by the lack of consistency.

There is also wide variation in how much they assume I understand in French. In particular, one of the teachers who usually speaks English to me is constantly explaining things other people are saying, especially when our students are speaking French amongst themselves, even though sometimes I already understood what was going on without translation. Meanwhile, there's at least one other teacher who usually addresses me in English who nevertheless seems to assume that I follow her long stretches of grammar explication in French and can provide word-for-word translations on various topics at the drop of a hat. (The other day she wanted me to say the word "oil well" and it did not seem to occur to her that the French word she was barking at me was not one I would ever have had occasion to learn.)

Some people try to slow down or enunciate more clearly when speaking to me, and some have even figured out that it's easier for me to understand when I'm spoken to directly as opposed to just trying to follow a conversation among several other people. Others are not so aware of these things, or just don't care.

This is particularly true outside the teacher's lounge. It makes sense that teachers, even teachers of subjects other than foreign languages, would be more patient and accommodating. In the world outside my school, there are fewer accommodations. My bank representative is always very kind and very careful to try to speak so that I can understand her, but with most other people I have business interactions with, I just have to try to keep up. (That's not a complaint, just an observation.) I ran into one bitchy woman at a train station ticket counter once, but other than that most people are willing to politely repeat or explain things if I look confused or tell them I didn't understand. They don't, however, slow down for me. I am particularly terrified of vendors at the markets: When they call out to me as I'm looking at merchandise, or walk over to tell me about something in particular I have my eye on, they're usually speaking very rapidly, not especially clearly, and sometimes with a heavy accent, and I almost never understand a word they say. And since I'm usually caught off guard, more often than not I just smile and nod and run away. (I'm aware that that's not the appropriate way to handle the situation, but it's very disconcerting to have no idea what someone is saying to you in a country where you're supposed to be able to speak the language.) When I bought the gloves I sent my mother for Christmas (and therefore had to interact with the boy selling them), I was really struck by the fact that he absolutely did not change his manner of speaking in the slightest after it became [abundantly] clear that I was not a native speaker of French. Again, not complaining, I just couldn't help but be intrigued, because I definitely alter my pace and sometimes even my vocabulary when I'm speaking English to speakers of other languages, especially if they're having trouble understanding me. Not so the French.

On the other hand, I have also encountered an astonishing amount of English here. Maybe it's just because French students all learn English at school--some of them are bound to retain at least a little into adulthood--but it seems like everywhere I go people are speaking English to me. The bartenders, at one of the Irish pubs in particular, sometimes speak English to us, and I've had many a caught-between-languages conversation with everyone from guys hitting on me at bars to the owner of the laundromat to people at the front desk at little local museums. Some of the assistants get really frustrated with the number of people who immediately start trying to speak to us in English once they realize we're Anglophone, but it doesn't bother me that much most of the time. Sometimes it's clear they're trying to be nice and make things easier, and other times it's pretty clear they just think we're exotic and want to show off and/or practice, and either way I don't really mind. When I made Francophone friends at UCC, I pretty much always spoke to them in English because I knew that was why they were in Ireland, to work on their English, but I won't pretend I haven't spoken French to, say, travelers I met in hostels even in Anglophone places. (There were also a surprising number of French vacationers in Virginia last summer.) It's exciting to have the opportunity, for one thing, and I also understand the impulse to want to make someone who might be out of their element feel like they're not completely isolated. It's not easy to be somewhere where you're surrounded by a language you don't understand, or only partially understand--but more on that when I write about my travels outside of France.

Often when people here insist on speaking English to me and I'd rather be speaking French, I'll let them talk in English and just answer them in French. I've had entire conversations in which both people were speaking the other person's language the whole time, sometimes by agreement and sometimes just because. I think it's a good compromise.
But anyway, it's not just from people I meet that I run into English all the time, but also on signs, in advertising slogans, in product names... it's everywhere. It's a little disconcerting, actually, and it really makes me wonder how it can be that so many students remain disinterested in learning English, or just don't see the value in learning English. It's becoming more and more clear that English's dominance is growing and that what I've been told by people from all corners of the world about how "you need to know English" is probably true, and only getting truer as time goes by. To see and hear so much English in a country that has a reputation for a level of pride in its own language that verges on snobbishness really drives home that belief. And as distasteful as I find the idea, because English-speakers have such a bad reputation as it is for thinking our language is best and most important and we shouldn't be bothered to learn anything else, it seems it's also only becoming more true that a person can get by in most of the world by speaking only English. My travels in other countries where I didn't speak the language at all were a little stressful, and I was constantly embarrassed not to understand the local language, but I got around just fine. No one here seems to hold it against me that I speak English and bad French and almost nothing else, even though many assistants whose native languages are something else speak three or even four languages, including English, all better than I speak just two. And maybe that's just because I have the grace to be ashamed, and to do the best I can with my bad French instead of insisting on English, but I still think it says something about how the relative global importance of languages is shifting. I've heard that in some parts of Scandinavia, it's more and more common for young people to speak only English to one another, so that there are fears that Scandinavian languages will start to die out within a few generations. My neighbor the Spanish assistant (who speaks English to me and usually not French) told me that on his layover in Frankfurt he and the German customs official communicated in English. 

One of the assistants from Austria has a French boyfriend and they speak to each other in English even though each of them knows a little of the other's native language. I had a long conversation with an assistant from Ireland one night about the problems with way the Irish language is taught and how little its students care; Gaelic is a minority language already, and if something doesn't change, I'm afraid its revival will soon be over. My mind was blown when I discovered there are English language assistants from India—I know that shows my ignorance more than anything else, but given the number of languages spoken in India and the fact that assistants have to be considered native speakers of the language they're here to teach, that's at least a little bit amazing to me. English is now taking over even in parts of the world where English speakers have never had political control and in places where local people once pushed back and revitalized their own linguistic cultures.

 It makes me feel like it's not all that arrogant of me to think that what I'm doing here, or at least trying to do here, is important, and it frustrates me that so many of my students—many of them studying things like engineering and product design, fields where their careers will almost certainly have an international aspect—don't seem to believe that English will be incredibly useful to them later. When I wrote in my application essay about my feelings on the importance of foreign language education, I was thinking more in terms of broadening students' horizons and opening up the world to them a little more and the way that understanding someone else's language gives us insights into how they think about things. I'm not sure I really thought at the time that learning English was a matter of day-to-day practicality, but it seems that it is for a lot of people.

I've never really felt lucky about being Anglophone before.** And that's not an insight I was expecting to gain from a year in France, either.

That's part of why I feel like pursuing TESOL certification might actually give me a chance to do something meaningful. Especially if I stay out of the swanky international schools for wealthy expat children and keep doing stuff like this, teaching city kids in tech programs or kids hoping to find a way out of poverty in developing countries for whom English might really open doors, or if I go back to the U.S. and teach ESL to immigrants who really need English to have a future there. Learning French changed my life, for sure, but not the way learning English has the potential to change the lives of speakers of other languages. I'm a little embarrassed to say that, and I don't think I would have a year ago, because it sounds so much like the outdated imperialist mindset I railed against last semester when learning about what French education was like in the colonies. But I'm not talking about using English to wipe out other languages. The idea of that happening even unintentionally is heartbreaking to me. I think we have to find ways to stop that from happening where possible, but the more I see of the world, the more I think it's true that English is becoming the global language. (Irony much?) I think learning it is going to continue to be important for anyone who wants to travel or communicate internationally.

That's not to say I don't still believe that English speakers should also learn other languages. If I ever have children, they will be raised bilingual--even if I still don't speak French well enough to be comfortable having them learn it from me, they will be getting some other language from somewhere. 

And on that note, I need to go out now and fumble through some more broken French.

EDIT: This video, blatantly stereotyping though it may be, is also hilariously accurate.

* Disclaimer: I do not claim, and probably will never claim, to be fluent in French. Not even close. I still routinely answer "a little" or "badly" when asked if I speak French, and I don't think it's untrue. According to the guidelines for language levels in the first lesson of my TESOL course, I would judge my own spoken French to be no better than intermediate, which at this stage--after nine years of classes and three and a half months in France--is just depressing. I am one hundred percent serious when I say that some of my students speak English better than I speak French, as do some of the Spanish assistants, for whom English is one of three or four languages bumping around in their brains. My reading and writing skills probably qualify as advanced, but that's little consolation in terms of day-to-day communication.
** And really, I still don't when I look at how much better foreign language education is in countries that speak certain other languages.

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