When I lived in New York I would go to Georgia each year to visit my dear friend, Jenn. She and I had met in theater class and had done a few shows together. We got along beautifully from the get go because she had a huge heart, a huge brain and tons of empathy so anything that may have been strange or intimidating to others didn’t phase her.
After college she became a computer programmer at a big company and whenever I visited I spent time with her co-workers. No matter how many times I saw them they always asked me to speak in different languages. I usually chose mundane sentences that didn’t mean much and rattled them off without a break in Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish. I didn’t mind putting on the little sideshow for their amusement, especially because to me it was something I have done pretty much every day for over 30 years. It’s no great feat to my mind.
Recently, working on my husband’s food truck here in North Carolina, I meet a lot of people who try to speak French to me. They say they took classes in high school or college, or both, but most of the time they can’t form even one complete sentence or understand when I answer. They try, and they understand about, but they don’t really speak it. Over time I realized why: they haven’t had a chance to live it.
I didn’t just take classes, I spoke each language on a daily basis.
In Brazil it was Portuguese most of the time and Italian the rest. Granted, I was mostly listening since I was a baby, but my first words and phrases were in both, usually mixed together. A toddler doesn’t worry about whether she is making perfect sense. People around her know what she is trying to say and just accept that one day she will distinguish between the differences. I still say “lixo” to say trash can and paper towels are always “papel melelo”, my baby version of “papel amarelo” because the paper towels we used in Brazil back then were yellow.
At school in Geneva we joked about speaking our own mix of English and French which now everyone calls “franglais”. Interchanged word just become a habit once you feel as comfortable in one language as another.
The question “what is your mother tongue?” has no answer because what does it mean?
Which language did you speak first?
What is the dominant language in your family?
Which language do you study in?
All of those questions have different answers for me and for many of my friends.
So, how did we do it? How did we become so proficient in so many languages?
We used them.
What you learn in class is necessary and must be learned in order to speak a language you have never spoken before. Grammar can be very tedious and vocabulary lists seem endless, but when you finally feel adept at speaking you should go somewhere you have to use it every day for the most banal situations.
I had to learn Italian like anyone else.
My parents are Italian and they always spoke it at home but I never studied it until college. I picked up words and phrases by listening. Whenever we visited Italy I would watch television even though I couldn’t understand a lot of it. My parents bought me the hugely popular Topolino and Paperino, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck respectively; through comics I found out how easy Italian can be once you know that it’s basically a question of pronouncing each letter. If I wanted something my father would tell me the phrase to sue and send me to get whatever I wanted myself. He was always a few feet behind me in case I lost my nerve or got upset because I couldn’t understand what the reply was to my question. I was scared at first but I got over it after a few years.
French was the same. Living in Geneva I learned how to speak in any situation. I learned slang words I would never have learned in class. I watched French movies and picked up expressions and word play that only native speakers use.
My Portuguese and Spanish took more work because the chance to speak them has not always been as constant.
There is no exact combination of study and speaking which will guarantee fluency, except perhaps consistency.
If you don’t have the chance of using a language you really want to speak fluently then find people who do. See if there are groups which help with speaking and meet regularly so you pick up the habit. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes and don’t feel inferior if you still have a lot to learn. Nothing makes life more interesting and fun than being able to travel and not feel left out of the place your in. Understanding what is going on around you makes you feel like you’ve left the rest of the world behind you and have traveled to another planet, maybe even another time. The first time I saw Bologna I kept looking for people in Renaissance costume around corners. I imagined what those places must have looked and sounded like hundred of years ago.
I loved hearing stories and reading history because I could imagine how it sounded.
Voices and stories have language in common. It should not be a barrier, but a joy, like a magnificent present that opens doors in a way nothing else can. There are no vitamin pills that can flex your brain the way stretching it to grasp and envelope the words of another country can. Reading Flaubert, Pasolini, Rumi, The Tl of Genji or the Dao De Ching in the original languages will always be better than any translation no matter how good it may be.
A people’s soul lives in their words and how they use them. No trip is complete unless you can lose yourself in the landscape and the only true passport for that is being able to communicate with the people so that they look at you like one of them.
When I moved to France I spoke French and people were never rude or indifferent to me.
I don’t think my relationship with my husband would have matured as quickly or as well into the love we share that drives us to experience our lives together if the barrier of languages had been higher. Ironically, he had to polish off his English to be able to feel as comfortable here in the U.S. He laughs about it now but he found out very quickly when we first arrived that what he had learned was the minimum he needed just to get by. Now he speaks American and English.
So don’t just want to go to Paris to shop or take a selfie on the Eiffel Tower to show off to your friends. Learn about the monuments and the history but most importantly learn some of the language. Learn a lot of the language and take time to use it. Enjoy the feeling of belonging and really living the experience. Don’t be a tourist, be a part of the place.
Bonne chance. Buona fortuna. Boa sorte. Buena suerte. Ciao!
Feature image courtesy of Unsplash, Hannes Wolf.