This morning a very nice technician from France Telecom came to open up the phone line for my new French studio apartment, a critical step toward finally gaining internet access here at home. I’m glad he came this week instead of last week because last week I was in whatever stage it is of the language learning process that makes you feel like you’re drowning anytime someone addresses you in the language you’re learning. The kind of drowning where you stop trying to remember how to swim and just feel panicked as you sink.
This stage took me a little by surprise. After two heady weeks of being amazed at how much I could actually understand and communicate here (the bar was really low, so imagine the way a 3-year-old communicates: far from correct but finally using real words and more intelligible than her 2-year-old self—I could only hope my mistakes were as cute as those of your favorite toddler!), I suddenly felt like I couldn’t understand anything—or at least anything spoken at normal speed by anyone with a French accent (i.e. REAL French versus the slow, sometimes-stuttering version spoken by the various stripes of non-francophones I’m often around).
I entered week #4 here fully prepared to drown for the next three months until I reach that magical point I’ve been hearing about: the point where the French fairy godmother waves her magic French-English dictionary, dropping French dust all over your head, and suddenly everything (or at least a whole lot of things) makes sense. I wasn’t relishing the drowning, but in my best moments I was prepared to push through and stay alive somehow (drift wood, anyone? Sea turtles willing to give me a ride?). It helped my resolve to get a little extra sleep this weekend. Sleep is almost as magical as fairy godmother dust.
Happily, so far this week, I’m instead floating again—not swimming yet, but not drowning either. So when Monsieur France Telecom Technician and I had an entire conversation in French, I think (perhaps wishful thinking) I understood the most crucial points: the line won’t be operational for two more days, and it’s the telephone company I’m using for service who will give me the phone number for my landline. He said a few other things in those sentences, but I’m just telling myself those things weren’t critical. The past two days have held other similar moments of mostly understanding. I’m still spelling R-E-L-I-E-F the English way, but I once again have hope I’ll eventually think it in French.
But I can’t go through the drowning moments without having my already strong sympathy magnified for non-English-speaking immigrants to the United States. Again and again here, I’m struck by the tables that have been turned. It’s as though when we read through the play the first time, I played one character. Then, just to mix things up, the director told my fellow actor and me to trade roles. Like any good actors, we’ve been expected to completely identify with whichever character is ours for that reading.
In Nashville, I donated household goods to a free garage sale for international students arriving for grad school at Vanderbilt University and needing to furnish their new homes. Here, I’m the international student who is the grateful recipient of other people’s cast-off and loaned items.
In Nashville, I assisted with English classes for Somali Bantu refugees, guided the occasional non-anglophone Starbucks customer through an order, and tried to speak slowly in conversations with new international friends whose English was so much better than my French is now. Here, I’m the one stumbling through sentences and replying to kind (or not-so-kind, I’m really not sure) statements with the glassy eyes and hesitant nod of one who is trying to understand but clearly has no idea what the person has just said.
I’ve felt like I’m drowning despite having a whole lot of preparation for the deep end: I arrived here with a base of French from three years of study in high school and college; I’m educated and know how to study and learn; I’m a words person, so I get the different roles different words play in languages; the language I’m learning operates on reasonably similar terms to my native language, shares an alphabet, and even shares quite a lot of words; transitioning between cultures is quite easy for me; I’m in a city where there are a lot of people (almost too many!) who speak my native language; and I’ve had tons of assistance from friends of friends from my home country or from other English-speaking countries. All that, and I’ve still felt like I’m drowning in the French ocean.
If you’ve never drowned, it can be very hard to imagine what it feels like. You might even find yourself hearing of the latest drowning and be thinking, “Well, why didn’t you just start swimming?” “Why didn’t you call for help?” “Why did you go out in that water in the first place?” If you’ve never drowned, you might not realize that panic can make your limbs forget they know anything about swimming if they ever knew how to swim in the first place, that no one was paying attention to the call for help, and that sometimes the scary, unknown waters are still better than the shore.
Immigrants sometimes get a very bad rap in the U.S. (and in lots of other places, too). Especially around the issue of whether they’re learning our language or not. And sometimes I think it’s just helpful to trade roles for a little while—either in reality or in your imagination—to try to understand how hard language learning is. I’ve met people in English classes in the States who never got to go to school in their home country and never learned to write or read in their own language, so now they’re not only trying to learn English, they’re also learning how to read and write and hold a pencil for the first time in their lives. And I think I’ve felt like I’m drowning? Sheesh. It’s amazing so many of those new to our country ever manage what English they do learn.
I’m fully expecting to have other weeks of drowning, but I’m hopeful the water-pruned skin and tired lungs will be worth it a few months from now when my French is good enough to help some other newcomer understand what Monsieur France Telecom Technician is saying. ALL of what he’s saying. And this week, I’m immensely grateful for a rest from the drowning.