Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How to Become an Accidental Linguist, in Three Strange Lessons

How to Become an Accidental Linguist, in Three Strange Lessons

By Glynnis Burrough

Learning the local language is essential.

However, one expat tells of the frustrations of studying French in Bahrain, Spanish in Argentina and German in Switzerland

I studied French in Bahrain, Spanish in Argentina and German in Switzerland. Can I say I can speak all three languages? Well yes, but unfortunately all of them, at the same time, in the same sentence.

My first experience of language learning was pure terror. French was compulsory in the first year of grammar school. The teacher was a fierce old dragon who believed the best way to teach French was to terrorise and ridicule. Every day, pale teary-eyed girls lined up in the corridor outside the classroom, praying for some terrible disaster to befall them so that they could avoid the French lesson. But God wasn't listening.

We translated yards of English into French, learned our irregular verbs by rote and even sang a French carol at Christmas; but French conversation only came along for five minutes a year, when a French teaching student paid a brief visit to each class in the school. After three years of terror I was told I would have to choose between French and Physics, as they would clash on next year's timetable. Not the hardest choice I've ever made.

It was not until 20 years later that a real necessity to speak French arose. When the Gulf war broke out I was living in Bahrain with my husband. Having experienced numerous weeks of trembling earth as Patriot missiles were launched and the US military crashed into various objects in Bahrain (including themselves), we decided it was perhaps time we had a bolt hole closer to home.

While spending a pleasant but very wet holiday with friends in France we ended up looking at houses and on the last day of our holiday we fell in love with an old stone cottage. We rapidly needed to acquire a good French vocabulary in bathroom and kitchen renovation. We also needed to be able to translate the seemingly strange fare offered by some restaurant menus.

For example, salade chaude au crottin de chèvre translates directly as: "warm salad of goats' droppings." However, this is in fact a delicious salad of warm goats' cheese. "Ah, yes," they explained, "one has to use the imagination." Well I did use my imagination and I still saw goat manure!

Luckily, back in Bahrain there was a well-established branch of L'Alliance Française, where French citizens who wished to avoid military service could still show the braveness of their heart by teaching French to English people who wanted to order goat manure in restaurants. Our teacher was Monsieur Petit, teacher extraordinaire and master of the art of colour co-ordinated clothing. I remember well our final exam day.

Whilst pondering the correct spelling of the word chaussettes (socks), I happened to glance at Monsieur Petit's chaussettes, which were in full view as he stretched back in his chair with his hands clasped behind his head. I was totally fascinated, as his canary-yellow cashmere chaussettes perfectly matched his canary-yellow spectacle frames – did they have shops in France that went to such extraordinary lengths in colour co-ordinated accessories and just how would they spell chaussettes? Despite the distraction I managed to pass.
My husband's work then took us to Buenos Aires in Argentina. Before departure we were required to attend an intensive Spanish course in Salamanca, Spain. To supposedly assist our rapid assimilation into the Spanish language we were to be placed with a Spanish family. We had dreams of a crisp, white, bougainvillea-draped villa, shimmering on a sun-drenched hillside. Unfortunately, the family lived above a bar on one of the noisiest streets in Spain.

When the noise finally died down at around 4.30am, the refuse collectors started and they had obviously decided that if they were going to be awake at that time then so was everyone else. Our host suggested earplugs so that we could sleep – the vocabulary floating up from the street below wasn't the kind that would be useful in negotiation contracts or arranging visas in Argentina.

Being a beautiful university city, Salamanca attracts young people from all over the world – most of them party animals. But they still seemed to have no problem in hoovering up the verbos irregulars and spitting them out in perfectly formed sentences without a bat of a drowsy eyelid.

What was their secret? Their party animal lifestyle became quite infectious and we 'mature students' were soon joining in. That's how I discovered their secret – they spent the whole night talking to the locals!

But when we got to Argentina we discovered that the Spanish there was not quite the same as the Spanish we had been taught. In English we would say "llama'" in Spain they would say "eeyama", but in Argentina they would say "shama"! Fortunately assistance was at hand; the company arranged lessons for us with a fantastic teacher Vero (Veronica).

I had her all to myself, and together we explored the eccentricities of each other's language and culture and my confidence to speak Spanish slowly grew. Vero became a very good friend and we're still in touch with her to this day.

A year later we were back in Spain, this time in Barcelona the capital of Catalonia where Catalan is spoken! Ah yes, it was only after my first lesson in "Spanish" that I discovered there was more than one language in Spain. What we usually refer to as Spanish is the lisping Castilian Spanish, but there is also Catalan, Galician, Asturian and Basque (and probably a few more), all languages in their own right.
But most of the people in Barcelona also spoke Castilian and there was even a Castilian language school. So back to school again – where they tried to knock "that Argentine accent" out of my Castilian (they didn't seem to be bothered by my English accent).

Then just as I was finally gaining confidence in Spanish, we were moved to Switzerland where German, French, Italian or Romansh are spoken. I would have been a gift if we had been placed in the French-speaking canton but we went to live in the German-speaking canton around Zurich. I then discovered that the Swiss don't actually speak German; they speak Swiss German, a specialised dialect, which the Germans claim they don't understand.

I got by for a few years speaking French, English and the little German I had picked up but I knew that one day I would have to start learning another language.
I was advised to learn High German as it was would be more useful worldwide than Swiss German. My first teacher was a very large lady of Swiss Italian origin who held conversations from the balcony window of the class room with members of her family in the street below, in very loud Italian. Meanwhile we, her class, set about untangling the mysteries of the German language through the exciting activity of filling in gaps in hundreds of meaningless sentences.

I was about to give up, when along came Dagmar, a native German speaker who knew how to make learning fun. Her humour was electric and infectious; everyone in the school adored her. I started to speak German. She too remains a good friend to this day.
One of the greatest pleasures of language learning is getting to meet and talk with people from all over the world. This was especially true in Switzerland where many well-educated asylum-seekers find refuge.

They are automatically provided with free language lessons to help them integrate. I would never normally have had the opportunity to speak with young women from Kazakhstan or have got to know what everyday life was like for ordinary people in Colombia. They all had their stories to tell and I would not have heard any of them had we not all been able to communicate in German.

We now live in France – back to the beginning. But my French had been wrestled to the ground by years of trying to speak Spanish and German, and was now making a brave attempt to get back on top with the result that all three were fighting it out every time I opened my mouth.

But I'm taking a rest from language schools – no matter how good the school, I can guarantee that a very noisy building site or road works will appear within a few feet upon my arrival. If not there is sure to be a busy road nearby where small furry creatures meet their maker with a great screeching of tyres, followed by verbal abuse and wailing sirens – all a little distracting.

I'm now opting for what is called "total immersion". I've become a member of the local village choir, my husband and I are members of an Argentine Tango dance association and I attend weekly Tai Chi classes – all solidly French. I watch the French news and I chat with my French neighbours. It's good fun and it's much cheaper! I've never before stayed anywhere long enough to get to this stage – so I think that, at last, I'm home.

You cend your submissions about life as an expat (up to 1,000 words) to the Weekly Telegraph newspaper (UK)at weeklyt@telegraph.co.uk.

Prof. Larry M. Lynch is an EFL Teacher Trainer, Intellectual Development Specialist, author and speaker. He has written ESP, foreign language learning, English language teaching texts and hundreds of articles used in more than 135 countries. Get your FREE E-book, “If you Want to Teach English Abroad, Here's What You Need to Know" by requesting the title at: lynchlarrym@gmail.com Need a blogger or copywriter to promote your school, institution, service or business or an experienced writer and vibrant SEO content for your website, blog or newsletter? Then E-mail me for further information.

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