Our post today, from guest contributor Shanthi, touches on a topic many expats struggle with – learning a new language.
Shanthi, it is not “tray beaucoup”… it is très beaucoup, tRRAY… emphasis on tRRay… NOT TRAY!!!… OPEN your mouth… OPEN your mouth… tRRRAY… RR… RR… my French teacher roared back at me. I wanted to run away but I stayed. It was probably the best thing I did for my life here in Belgium.
This was my opening scene in Belgium. Oh well, who am I kidding? This was not really the opening scene, when a new chapter in my life began in Belgium, in 2011. ‘Oh My! Oh My! How exciting!’ my friends exclaimed, when I broke the news to them. How exciting indeed!
It is hard not to fall in love with Belgium. Steeped in history, this old land steals your heart in seconds: The vintage beauty of unpolished copper statutes; the ancient buildings crying to tell their stories; the fine dining; the frites de pomme de terre; the beer; the wonderful waffles (and speaking of waffles, I have had them in London and even San Francisco but I never thought I would enjoy Belgian waffles one day in Belgium!); the magnificent moules avec sauce à l’ail; the magic marzipan, and the people, who marvelously speak three or even four languages in this country sandwiched between France, the Netherlands, and Germany, will not let you forget that you are in Belgium.
Even so, while falling in love with the very essence of Belgium, I was confronted, pleasantly at first, by the want (and certainly not a need in my initial days enjoying my freedom as a foreigner) to speak a little French, to order food.
My introduction to the French language in Belgium, needless to say, began in the restaurants, with waiters asking me in French what I wanted to order. So, with immediate urgency, fostered by my love of food, I learned what I then fondly labeled as “French food vocabulary” (FFV). I learnt some of the words any foreigner needed to know, even if you do not pronounce those words with perfection, such as vous avez, nous voulons manger ici, une bouteille d’eau petillant, poissons, legumes…etc. I had an affinity to quickly learn the names of desserts!
Of course, in some places such as Brussels or most Flemish speaking communities, an English speaker can cruise through life with some French vocabulary for everyday chores, such as grocery shopping, equipped with a French/English dictionary. However, this is not the case in the Walloon region south of the Brussels.
I have to pause here to mention, one of the reasons why I love Belgium is the people here; the locals. They welcome you with open arms and encourage you to discover their origins, while manifesting a natural curiosity for your own origins. Most Belgians will try to speak to you in English, once they realize you are not French or Dutch speaking. However, there are always exceptions to the rule. There are cases where some will, point blank, refuse to say anything and walk away or, worse, roll their eyes at you or make gestures to indicate their frustration. Perhaps rightfully so, as we are here in their country and should be able to communicate with them in their language, not ours. If we are in the USA, do we not expect everyone to speak English? Reverse roles; that is the harsh reality when you find yourself in an unfavorable position.
But is it really an unfavorable position? Why not look at it as an opportunity to learn a new language? Studies recently demonstrated how one can avoid Alzheimer’s by keeping their mind active. A new language, especially French, with its complex grammar and pronunciation, will not only help you navigate the waters in Belgium and France, it will help you mentally too. Now, how great is that?
But how do you cope when you’re struggling to learn?
When someone rolled their eyes at me, or made irritated gestures at my inability to understand, I did not run away or stand my ground and continue to speak in English. I adopted Plato’s approach. He once quipped, “At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet.” I wanted the locals to understand I am trying to learn the language, with the ultimate goal of integrating into their society. I learned a phrase which I labeled as “save my soul French vocabulary” (SMSFV) and responded: “désolé mon français est terrible, pouvez-vous parler anglais s’il vous plait?”
Somehow, this approach warmed even the most unyielding of Belgians and they ended up helping me out. When people showed a willingness to cooperate, I found myself relaxing and remembering words I didn’t think had sunk in. Instead, they raised their pretty little heads and helped in difficult situations.
The most important tool is to be undeterred, by a few nasty individuals, and stand your ground and speak French, no matter how awful it may sound. It is not only the first step towards learning French, or any language, it is a tool to get ahead in life.
Fast forward more than two years here and I can go about my life the way I would in the USA. I am grateful to say I am happy here. The main reason is not that my husband speaks French, German and Spanish, or that we have people surrounding us who speak English to me. But rather, I feel powerful to be learning French. I am open to learning new languages and I am open to speaking to the locals here. I am going to sign up for Dutch lessons, even though my French is less than stellar.
One of my favorite bands, Coldplay, wrote a song titled ‘Talk’ and I wondered naively if that song was written for me. It kept me company during my early days in Belgium. I will never forget this song. There are two sections of the song that pretty much sum up how I felt:
Are you lost or incomplete? /Do you feel like a puzzle, you can’t find your missing piece? /Tell me how you feel /Well I feel like they’re talking in a language I don’t speak /And they’re talking it to me…
So you take a picture of something you see /In the future where will I be? /You could climb a ladder up to the sun /Or write a song nobody had sung /Or do something that’s never been done /Do something that’s never been done.
It is true, people here speak languages I have never spoken, before coming to Belgium; and yes, they are talking them to me. I will therefore learn the languages as best as I can and as fast as I can so I can speak them too. Peut-être, I may not climb a ladder up to the sun, but I have climbed Vesuvius and taken pictures of Italian sunsets and I have soaked up the sun in cobalt blue Mediterranean seas too. Peut-être, I may also do something no one has ever done before. La vie est belle!
[Editor’s Note] If you’d like to read more articles about learning a new language check out the following:
- Peaches and Fish – Language and Uncertainty in Expat Life
- Wanted: Canadian Kitchen – Dealing with Realtor Speak in Belgium | Flashback
- When English Rules | Flashback
- The Silent K
- Een Beetje Tongue Tied
Looking for more resources for living in Belgium? Check out our Expat Resources page.