Obstacles to Language Learning: An Expat’s Experience

tshirtLong before I even knew it was possible that I would ever live in France, I had a desire to learn the French language. I was at the top of my French class for two years in High School, so I had a positive association with it. Besides, it seemed that my bilingual friends all had more fun. So, when I actually knew I was moving to France, I was looking forward to the language experience. Was.

I told myself that my priority would be language learning. I intended to take as many lessons as I could throughout the week. I even started before I left, taking some lessons with a friend and using online resources like Duolingo. Once I got to France, though, I was faced with an unanticipated reality.

Obstacle #1: Location

My French-born bestie back home had filled my head with ideas of free French lessons designed to help immigrants fit in. Having taught in a Continuing Ed program at a college, I had preconceptions of free daily classes taught by entertaining teachers. I loved the idea because I learn better in groups. Unfortunately, the reality was that I was way too far away from any such program, living in the country as I was. And having just arrived, I was nowhere near tapped into life here to know what was available. However, eventually, as luck would have it, I found affordable group French lessons once a week in the closest town fifteen minutes away. What a godsend! The teacher was a Brit with dramatic flair and fabulous sense of humor. I was so bewildered and homesick at that time, it was always a delight to go to class and remember how to laugh. I also made friends with a couple of native speakers and had some lessons that way, but it was far too easy to succumb to speaking English instead.

Eventually, other classes surfaced nearby. Of course, they weren’t free, but they weren’t wickedly expensive either. Some of them were better than others. I ended up quitting one class even after purchasing an pricey book because it was just too slow for me (hard to imagine!) and the content seemed far too touristy. About six months in, I eventually learned of a program for which I qualified through the French unemployment bureau. I signed up but never heard anything back. With some persistence, I did finally manage to re-enroll after several more months. The class only met once a week, but it was free, and it was all morning long, but for a while, I was the only student. This had advantages and disadvantages: the positive was individualized attention; that also happens to be the negative. This situation eventually morphed into two classes a week, both mornings and afternoons. Now sometimes, there are other students, but usually it is just me.

Obstacle #2: Stuffed!

I was so excited that I’d be going to classes twice every week for the entire day. Was. Quickly, I began to realize three things: 1) I hated waking up at 7AM 2) I hated having a two-hour lunch break with nowhere to go and 3) there was no room in my poor brain after 2.5 hours of French, let alone 6! Maybe immersion is the way to go for some people. I can’t think of a bigger nightmare. I get so flippin’ exhausted! I can’t imagine being in it all day every day. Maybe it’s because I’m introverted; I need to be alone with my thoughts. At any rate, more is not necessarily better! When there were other students, I could get a lot more out of the day. When I’m on my own though, it’s quite difficult because of the intensity…and frustrating too because what I need most is conversation with others.

Obstacle #3: STRESS!!!

I know that stress has a huge role to play in one’s ability to learn a language…or anything else for that matter. Fact is, settling into a new country is a stressful endeavor. When you are worried about figuring out why there’s a problem at your bank or about whether or not some important piece of paper has been lost or processed, it leaves less room for new stuff. When class rolled around, some days, my mind would be on other things making it very difficult to pull up the words I needed. This had no end of negative impact on my self-confidence and sense of self as a highly intelligent, capable person with a love for learning. In fact, I increasingly felt as though I was living through the eyes of my fragile special needs students back home. I had a sense of what my brain was supposed to be doing, but it just wouldn’t cooperate, making me feel like a failure. When I had a medical emergency last year, I couldn’t say anything but “merci” at the hospital. The doctor was a real prick about it too, making fun of me. (He inspired the above T-shirt!…though it is mostly me who has to get over it!) Believe me, having a crowd of nurses and doctors over your head saying things you don’t understand while they do whatever they want with you is sufficiently nerve-wracking to affect one’s ability to communicate anything!

Obstacle #3: Priority

Even though I came here with learning French as my priority, the fact is, other things took over…important things…like my mental health. I had to battle growing anxiety; there were many relationship problems and bureaucratic obstacles to work on too. I needed time for making friends and other things that were actually enjoyable to me just to keep myself sane. Then I realized I had to get going with my business, promoting, networking, writing, painting… I had to keep some semblance of life going because I was falling into despair. Finding myself and my happiness became my priority. French was just another unpleasant but necessary task I had to do every week. I felt some guilt over this. How dare I come live in a country and NOT make the language my priority? But life was happening, and if I wasn’t careful, I would end up sick, tired, and even more depressed than I already felt.

Obstacle #4: Motivation

I am not married to a French-speaker. I’m married to a Brit who barely speaks French himself. So, we don’t use any French in the house. It’s a definite handicap. In addition, this region is absolutely crawling with English-speakers. I’m glad, actually, because it is saving my life. But at the same time, it sure doesn’t motivate me to learn more French. I realize it will ultimately shrink my life to the size of a peanut if I don’t learn, but for now, while I’m still just trying to acclimate and be at peace, I’m not terribly motivated to push. In my life, there have been many things I wanted to learn…how to play guitar (abandoned), karate (abandoned), reading music (abandoned), Chinese (abandoned)…  Who knows why we both decide to pick something up and why we eventually put it back down again? If I stay in France, obviously abandoning French won’t be an option. But to be honest, it is one of the biggest reasons I want to leave!

Obstacle #5: Plateaus

As my current French teacher has pointed out, I’m a person who is used to having the ability to express herself in complex ways. I can’t do that in French. It is extremely frustrating. I have no interest in small talk, the weather… every day life, so to speak. I want to talk philosophy. I want to get complex! Alas, I have to contend myself with the mundane. There are just so many words I don’t know. I know what I want to say, but as I think how to say it in my head, I never know where to begin and everything just freezes. If I don’t know the first word, I suddenly don’t know anything. It is easy to fall into this idea that I’ve hit some kind of learning plateau in my first year… a plateau I’ll never get over. If I think back to how much French I knew last year at this time, I really have made progress. However, for whatever reason, on some days, I seem to forget everything! I’m not sure if it is because I’ve fooled my teachers into thinking I understand more than I do (I’m very good at not really knowing what anyone is saying but using context to figure it out), or if it is simply my almost 50-year old brain straining to remember things.

I know that a lot of people here give up learning the language. They feel it is too difficult and don’t feel they ever make any progress. I think I myself am going to have to fight those feelings. I’m not ready to give up yet. I might never be fluent, but it would be nice to feel somewhat confident that I can get by.

What has your experience been like learning a second language? What have been your biggest obstacles?

 

 

 

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Ex-pat-e-cake

So, yes, this blog is taking a slightly new direction. In February, I came to France to stay with stars in my eyes and butterflies in my heart. It didn’t take long for intense grief, identity crisis, and culture shock to set in. Now, 9 months later, comes a gentle and humble acceptance of reality which includes a floundering marriage and many other surprises – some good, some…”meh”.

I certainly had no clue what I was in for. I think if I had, I would never have done it like I did it. Alas, I did the best I could, and now I’m a lot wiser for it.

If I were to bake my Expat-experience cake, up to now, the recipe would go something like this:

You’ll need at least 3 cups of the Great Mystery to set it all in motion
Add 1 cup of complete and total disorientation
Throw out all the comforts of home
You’ll need to process several pounds of the language but only have 3 T. in the cupboard. The processor will be broken due to overwhelming stress. This will lead to a bitter flavor, but make do.
Take 2 c. of complete and utter isolation and plan to do everything you love alone in your room.
In a separate pot, pour tears of grief over incomprehensible loss and mix with 2 completely different love languages that keep crossing wires. Stir in the following spices: nothing in common, unanticipated debt, and learned helplessness.

Strain the relationship. Set aside the juices of depression, aggression, tension, and early signs of peri-menopause including personality changes, distorted thinking, utter exhaustion, hot flashes and a myriad of other ludicrous symptoms that make you doubt your sanity.

Combine everything in every bowl in the kitchen so there’s more to clean. Use copious amounts of anxiety to help stiffen the batter so you end up in the hospital from a panic attack.

Image Source: Flickr Photo by: Michael Wilson
Image Source: Flickr
Photo by: Michael Wilson

For the frosting:

Melt a whole stick of mastering the standard car, 1/2 c. going to the store a whole hour away alone,  and selling a hand-full of articles with 1 c. of your very first art exposition. Add 2 T. of “Oh my God, I just managed to have a sort of a conversation with someone”. Stir in essence of walks in the woods singing at the top of your lungs. Add a friend and neighbor who actually takes an interest in your work. Stir well.

Spread the frosting on the cake to create many crests and valleys. Top with sprinkles of crushed heartache.

Serve with trick candles.

I’ve had my fill of this particular cake. I’m working on a new recipe now. Stay tuned…

Settling In

I haven’t blogged here in ages, and I’d like to bring things to a sort-of closure. I am writing this from my office in our new house in the Charente. It is hard to believe that just two years ago, my husband and I met and began our whirlwind, international romance. It is sometimes harder to believe we actually persevered and made it through the unbelievable challenges that were thrown at us from all sides. WE DID IT!!!

I’ve been in France officially as a resident since May of 2015. I have my Carte de Sejour now, and just yesterday, received my Carte Vitale in the mail. Today, I even managed to get myself a library card. Of course, that was significantly easier than everything else, let me tell you! I’ve even made great strides in driving the old stick shift!

I’ve been taking French since I arrived, but it is slow going. While I wish I was in school every day, out here in the country, there just aren’t opportunities for that. So I string my French lessons together as I can. I take a couple of hours in the nearest town every week. I also use the internet to study and listen to French radio and TV. I tried joining a choir but ironically, they sang a lot of English songs. I registered at the Pole Emploi, the equivalent of the Department of Labor, and will receive additional weekly lessons through them for free starting in a few months. I just wish it was starting now and happening every day!

In fact, the language barrier is now the single most important obstacle I must learn to overcome. But as long as one has some good translators to call when needed (and can afford to pay them), one can get by. Of course, I can’t wait for the day when I can actually speak and write well enough to handle things myself. It is tough to put so much trust in others who are speaking for me all the time. So much is lost in translation.

But generally, I’m finding that life here isn’t nearly as difficult as I expected it to be. Now that the worst is over, I’m finding it all pretty easy. Maybe I’m fooling myself. Time will tell…

The hardest parts about living here:

1. It is easier to meet and socialize with the English-speaking community than to integrate into French society. In my experience, there is little support to help the English-speaking community to integrate…okay, actually none! Maybe it would be different if we were in a big city like Paris, though.

2. It can be a nightmare to find the answers to important questions. Very often, the answers lead one down a rabbit hole that merely seems to produce even more questions.

3. My life has shrunk considerably in many ways in terms of friends, opportunities, and a sense of control over what happens to me.

The best parts about living here (aside from being with Stuart):

1. The view out my window is phenomenal, and there is plenty of quiet.

2. There are some real angels here and it is a joy to meet and interact with them. France is cultivating my gratitude for the finer things in life (and I don’t mean wine).

3. I’m growing by leaps and bounds and am having to overcome a ton of my fears and resistances, all very good for my personal healing. As I can’t control anything, I have no choice but to just let go and let is all unfold. That is a huge lesson and a huge gift.

Time will tell how difficult it is to make an actual living here doing what I was doing in the States. I may have to be more flexible or go in a completely unexpected direction. I may find it impossible. Who knows?  But that’s the next thing on my plate…making a living.

So…

Bon Courage!

 

The Langauge Barrier

A message for our American readers…

I’ve known my Brit now for a little over 9 months. We’ve been married for just over 3. And as is to be expected in such mad-dashed affairs, some differences are only now beginning to surface. I’m sure we can work through them, given time and our commitment to one another. But it really is a challenge.

For example, Stuart believes I have no energy whatsoever because I’m always asking for the “restroom”.

“Another nap, dahling?”

Whereas Stuart made a fine Southern lady in Florida blush when he said he was looking for the toilet.

The other day, driving to the library, I pointed at the sky where a beautiful hawk was soaring, “Look at the hawk!”

Stuart sat there for a moment, blank, and then looked at the sky. The hawk was gone. Turns out, he had no idea what I was saying. You see, the British have a funny way of pronouncing common English words.

“Eh-oh, you mean Hork!”

“Um…okay.”

And this morning, when he asked me if I wanted the avocado on the counter or if he could have “hah-f” with his “yawg-et,” I had to suppress a giggle.

When I said I was hot, he said, “You certainly are!” Oh, but that’s not the weird part. He said, “Well no wonder with that polo neck.”

“Polar neck? I don’t get it. This is a turtle neck, ya know, cuz it’s like a turtle! What do polar bears have to do with it?”

“No, polo neck. Not polo neck.”

“Oh, okay, honey. Thanks for clearing that up.”

When he asked me to open my boot, I took off my shoe. Turns out he wanted to put the laptop in the trunk.

When shopping for slippers, when I said, “These blue ones are nice,” he replied, “I prefer the cah-key.”

“What does the car key have to do with it?”

Turns out he meant khaki…ya know…the color. Kak-ee.

I won’t EVEN get into their funny spellings…favourite, colour, and tyre. Such strange behaviour!

And now something for our British readers:

I love my wife; I really do. So I’m doing everything I can to accept the fact that she’s a foreigner. She’s bound to make mistakes with the language. I should just exercise my stiff upper lip and deal with it.

But when I’m painting and I ask her opinion of the contrast, why does she say, “Oh, you mean the contraast!”

And why when I ask if she wants some more apricot juice does she say “appricot” juice?

Funny little country, America. It was awfully good of us to give it to the Americans. Though I dare say, we should have stayed a little longer and made sure they spoke the language first!

(Please do not deploy assassins. It’s only humour…or humor as my wife insists!)