“All I have is a voice." (W.H. Auden)

Speaking in Foreign Tongues

Growing up in Asia a long time ago, I had become conversant in languages (Pilipino, English, Spanish and a local dialect) but being multilingual was a matter of fact.  My private school classmates were just as fluent as I was in the three main languages and many of my relatives as well.  It was, really, no big deal.  Until I immigrated to the U.S.  It was a gift that presented itself in social and professional situations and garnered admiration and questions.  And I was/am pleased.

 

Then France became a reality.  And despite the Latin foundation and the much touted relation to Spanish, French was unfamiliar and difficult.   A business colleague once asked me why we purchased a house in a country where I do not speak the language.  “Because I needed an incentive to learn it,” I retorted.   And so I had to learn.  Despite the many lessons – formal, private, independent, -- I struggle to understand and to speak.  My confidence has improved over the years not necessarily because my working knowledge of the language increased at every visit but because I have used facial expressions and hand motions to supplement my meager vocabulary.

 

When I greet people as the custom requires, the response I receive is seldom a bonjour or ça va alone but much, much more.  Sometimes I get it, sometimes I do not.  When the latter happens, I try to sense the tone to search for meaning.  Then I can express awe, dismay, surprise or sympathy by facial expression and hand motions– like a mime, perhaps.  I don’t know if these expressions relate to the communication at hand but it seems to satisfy people.  Either that or they give up and move on with a smile.

 

And when I can speak French, I still get many words wrong.  Early on, at one of the Narbonne restaurants in the town center, we had become familiar faces to the pregnant waitress and she was clearly delighted whenever we came by and had lunch.  So, after a few visits, I inquired whether she was expecting a femme (woman) or homme (man).   She looked at me, eyes twinkling, and quietly said, “C'est un garcon, madame.”  Then she rushed to the kitchen presumably to share the story with the cook and/or burst into a laughing fit.  But we are still welcome and she is still delighted to see us.  Her boy is now about 3 years old, I think.  Clearly a “garcon.”

 

The other day, I saw one of our local doctors so I asked her whether I can see her at the clinic.  She said, “cabinet.”  I replied, “non, le clinique.”   She shook her head and said again,” Appelez-moi à la cabinet.”  And she gave me her mobile number.  So when we got home, I checked the dictionary.  Viola!  “Cabinet” is office and “clinique” is a private hospital.  Glad she corrected me or I would be telling the girls’ teachers that I’m taking them to the private hospital for a TB vaccination.   And they would be wondering why when there’s a doctor’s office a block from our house.

 

I also make a common mistake.  Using English words and adding –“er” at the end to make them French.  When we start packing up the house and preparing to leave, neighbors would ask where we were going.  I often replied, “nous retournons dans les États-Unis” instead of “nous revenons dans les États-Unis.”  Retourner being close to the word “return” but actually is a verb that means to turn inside out or turn over.  I sometimes wonder why they would ask me the same question every year;  perhaps it’s to remind me to get it right.

 

The girls and I take all the confusion and challenge in stride.  But husband will have none of it.  His strategy is to grab one of us to act as interpreter/translator or to escape when he sees a neighbor or someone approaching to engage him in a conversation.  Sometimes even to just say hello.  So many times when I am in the top (third) level of the house, cleaning or packing,  I hear a shout to come down.  Thinking it was an emergency or someone  looking for me, I would rush down the circular stairway hoping not to tumble only to find my husband in the ground floor, motioning to the open door, and whispering, “The neighbors  are outside.”  Mais oui,  it is their street, too!

 

It is a beautiful language, though.  And I am privileged to have this ongoing opportunity to learn and improve it.  Someday, I will definitely count French as my fourth spoken language.  Writing, however, is another matter for another time. 

 

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Rita E. Quizon | Reply 07.02.2013 22.17

I am trying to learn by reading your story but at this point I would say I surrender. I don't think I can learn. Like Allan, I need a good interpreter.

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14.07 | 08:01

Beautiful! Vive la France!

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17.02 | 01:57

France is awaiting your return, Betty!

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16.02 | 10:07

Such a wonderful experience for all! Truly a beautiful region filled with lovely people, excellent food, and soothing wine! Am looking forward to returning.

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07.09 | 14:44

What a joy for this to be shared. I am reading several times, soaking it in and making my own movie in my mind of this adventure. So excited for you three!

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