I’ve always had trouble with words. I’m not very good at spoken language, and I’m the only person my high school French teacher has ever recommended to buy a translated (English) version of the book, so that I could read the French, then the English, then the French again. I don’t do well with discerning words from context – if I don’t understand one word, I lose the entire sentence. This makes learning foreign languages incredibly hard for me, especially in immersion settings. Add to that auditory processing delays and you get one very lost autie.
However, I hate that most Americans don’t speak another language, and as such, spent a good portion of my time from age 10 onwards, learning French (why French? I don’t know – I just liked it). I’m very proud to report now that my French is what I call “functional” – I can even mimic an accent to the point where when I was in France about 4 years ago, people stopped changing to English the moment I opened my mouth! I’m by no means fluent, and I have trouble with finding the “right” words quite often, but I can get by. My roommate here is French, and we speak a hilarious combination of English and French, switching back and forth whenever one of us can’t figure out the right word. I even had dinner with a few of the French girls a few nights ago, and we carried on a conversation for over an hour entirely in French, about all sorts of things, including research. I understood nearly everything, and I even participated some.
But I’m not in France. And as a consequence, I’ve had to deal with a whole new set of language words and customs that I don’t understand. To top it off, despite being in a university town, nearly no one here speaks English. I’ve found a few restaurants where people speak French, so that’s a good compromise, but it’s still difficult. I’m pretty good with looking up things in my phrase book, but whenever I try to pronounce them, my accent comes out in French, and they don’t understand me anyway. And half the time, when I try to say something, it comes out half in French, and only half in the intended language. When I tried to buy my bus ticket, my brain got so confused that the words all came out jumbled in French, Italian, English AND Spanish (all the while uttering apologies in each language and getting even more confused) The poor woman looked at me with this pitiful look and said “English?” I might’ve turned several shades of red, but really, I was so tired that I don’t think I cared.
All this is to say that being here is definitely a linguistic experience. Words are hard. When I’m having conversations in English, words are hard, and it’s infinitely harder for me in another language. But I’m getting by. Kindness on the part of my classmates at dinners, my phrasebook and dictionary, and my mediocre ability to decode Latin-based languages means I actually managed to order some food all by myself a few days ago. I get points for that, right?
So overall, language has been a lot harder than I expected it to be, but it’s definitely been a pretty good experience even so. Plus I can now count to 50 in yet another language, and sort of get across what my point is. I like collecting numbers in other languages. Luckily for me, the class is taught in English. I can only imagine how exhausting it must be for all the foreign students for whom English is not a first language. And I’ve even started to fingerspell some of these new words, too…