During our time in Europe our experiences with language have made me think a lot. It makes me consider how I approached learning languages in school, and also something about the way that North Americans think about speaking foreign languages. So perhaps I can share some thoughts about this.
I have been a student of languages for many years, learning French, German and then Russian through my school career and into university. Both my parents were lovers of the French language and literature, and my mother taught French and German in secondary school, and even started me off with Russian prior to my studies at St. Andrews University. Because most of those years spent studying language weren’t spent in the country where it was spoken, the experience felt somewhat removed from the living language. It wasn’t possible for my family to send us abroad much (although I was lucky enough to go on a German exchange twice during my time at the Mount), and we never went abroad as a family (except to North America for a year when I was 9).
Even in university all my language classes were conducted in English, except for the weekly conversation class with the native speaker language assistant. After coming home from Germany and later Russia, I wished that it wasn’t the case, because I feel that it really hampered us as language learners. Maybe it was about British reticence, or being in an academic environment. So, we never were pushed to start thinking in another language, and when we got to the country it was a bit of a shock. I always thought of speaking my chosen languages as a task and an obligation, if an interesting one, and for someone who was by nature quite shy, it created a certain amount of apprehensiveness. Most people who have learnt a foreign language know of the uncertainty about speaking grammatically correct, getting the right ending/verb declensions etc. I was often afraid to open my mouth.
One of my experiences with speaking other languages is wanting to express myself very precisely, and having to realize that my skills inevitably fall short. In speaking with my Russian patients, especially one with whom I’ve had a long and fairly in depth relationship, I’ve had to slow myself down, and rely more on intonation, nonverbal communication, and simplifying my expectations of myself.
During our travels, my experience of speaking other languages has been completely different. Often you are interacting with someone who doesn’t know English, and so your language becomes, in many cases, an essential tool – it can determine if you get to the right place at the right time with the preferred means of transport etc. Sometimes neither of you knows the others’ language and then you rely on nonverbal communication or one or two word statements or questions. In a way I find those kinds of interactions very rewarding as there is an effort being made on both sides to communicate and this often leads to meaningful if brief feelings of connection. Sensitivity to other people has meant I have really focused on paring the interactions down to the very basics in speaking English to non-English speakers…slowly, simply and clearly. Because as often as I have retreated from an interaction with 60 % or less of the information, I have had my interlocutor who “speaks English” demonstrate that they have only grasped a portion of what I said by how they respond or by their follow up questions. So contemplating how language affects our interactions can be quite thought provoking.
One pleasant experience is having recently been in countries where German is spoken, where I noticed my own comfort in the language…even if it’s mostly about a queue or where the toilet is, or how I want my coffee. The longer conversations have not come that easily yet, and I find it hard to follow conversations especially with younger people, because they seem to talk quite fast, but I haven’t had that many opportunities. I’ve enjoyed observing children’s conversations, and also having interactions with older people, as they tend to talk more slowly and emphatically. Anyway, it feels nice to feel that I can at least dredge up some deeper knowledge of the language, versus saying “I’m sorry I don’t speak _____ , do you speak English?” I have consciously resorted to speaking English when I want there to be no doubt about the information I’m getting….depending on how important that information is, realizing that this is pushing against my formal education, where I felt I had to speak the language at all costs.