Living the Language Barrier

It was my second week in Grenoble, France and I was waiting at the bus stop. “Do you know what time the next bus is coming?” an elderly lady asked. Such a simple question, yet I could feel my stress level rise. I looked behind me at the schedule and then mentally ran through my response. “I think it is coming in five minutes,” I nervously replied in French. She thanked me and turned away, but I could tell by her facial expression that she knew.

“You’re not from here, are you?” she says confirming my impression. I sighed. I was discovered. “No, I’m not.”

Last September I quit my job and moved to France on a seven-month work contract to teach English. While teaching experience was certainly one thing I hoped to gain, my real goal, shamelessly, was to practice French. I had studied the nitty-gritty of French grammar, with its endless exceptions and tenses, and had also spent time in France. But, I knew my language skills were not quite up to snuff. I wanted an immersion experience. By actually living in France, I could practice what I had learned from the books, and then Voilà, add “fluent in French” to my résumé.

After living and working in France, I can certainly say that I improved. Yet, this is far from the only thing I learned. Living the everyday in a second-language and culture brought a host of unanticipated difficulties and challenges. Simple tasks, such as getting groceries or opening a bank account, became mentally exhausting and time-consuming chores, especially when my vocabulary was better fit to describe 19th century literature and art than banking basics.

It was also taxing on my pride. Like most people seeking an immersion experience, I wanted to fit in. To be mistaken for a French person was the ultimate honour. Yet to actually learn and improve, I had to let go of this desired image and reveal my foreignness by speaking with accented French – or worse, admit I did not understand by asking a question. The latter, honestly, never became less difficult.

The rewards for these struggles, however, were rich. In addition to providing me with a daily dose of humility, speaking French gave me cultural insights, experiences, and above all, friendships that would not have been otherwise possible. I was able to participate in my work place, join a wonderful church, and make countless memories. It also gave me a new perspective on the experience of my neighbours and friends at home—those that have uprooted their lives to move to Canada and now live permanently in another language and culture.

Above all, I strongly believe that language learning has better equipped me to know and love my neighbours. While in France, it allowed me to meet people in their own context and build relationships. Now back in Canada, I feel I have a better understanding and certainly awareness of the possible daily challenges faced by my neighbours who have immigrated here.

I guess I could say I have come a long way from my bus stop encounter. I certainly don’t resent my accent (though I can’t say I’m not pleased when no remarks are made). For those of you looking to pursue learning a language, I can say it is worth every effort, even the humiliating ones. Just embrace the accent.