Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Thrill of Being a Foreigner

On a business trip to Madrid a few years back, I met an old Spanish girlfriend who attended my same graduate school in California, and had, in the meantime, returned to her native Spain.
"You did it again: you’re living abroad!" said Ruth, referring to the fact that I had returned to Europe, but settling in France instead of my native Italy.

There is definitely something thrilling about "being a foreigner." Loads of articles describe the difficulties that expats experience, but I mostly see the thrill and advantages of never being bored by constantly learning new ways to think and doing things, being surrounded by a landscape which is different, and certainly having to speak different languages. Which brings me to...

...The Thrill of Switching Languages

I learnt most of my languages as an adult, therefore this is something I have enjoyed fully and mostly in the last 10 years, in other words, I didn't grow up with it, as Milo will.

I took English in middle and high-school. The teaching methods of the 80’s in Italy were purely theoretical and hardly stimulating: we were submerged by a great deal of grammar rules and British literature (there is nothing exciting about Beowolf when you are 16…) and impractical examples (such as "The pencil is on the table," or "The cat is under the table"), which I never, ever got to use once I become fluent in English! Moreover, the teacher had never stepped foot outside of Italy…my main use of the language at the time was to decrypt the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen!

My first live encounter with the English language took place when I was 18 and I attended a summer volleyball camp in upstate New York. At the camp I got to meet American girls my age who shared my passion for volleyball. The struggle to communicate was immense, especially on the court, but after the 3 weeks spent there, I could finally handle a conversation…I felt powerful! The girls were moved by my accent and often corrected me, sometime made fun of me too… which became a motivator to learn the language properly, finally with a purpose.

During college in the US I took Russian as a foreign language. I loved its sound and the challenge of having to master a different alphabet. I did not go further than a year, unfortunately, but I love renting Russian movies from time to time, and bathe in its sweet musicality.

Iin the US I became friends with several Spaniards and fell in love with Spanish. I took a few courses in a community college, and practiced it during the summer and business trips to Spain. As an Italian native, it is not so difficult, I must admit. I am far from being fluent, but I can get by and understand 80% of what I hear and read.

French is a language I always flirted with; being from the Romance language tree, it is very easy for Italian natives to understand it and pick it up. Furthermore, I am from the Piedmont region, and our dialect has the same roots as French. I bought a grammar book when I was in college and in my spare time I would try to learn it. It wasn’t until I was offered a job in Paris that I applied myself seriously to its sticky grammar traps. But I love to be able to watch French movies in OV and finally have access to its rich literature.

Dutch is a serious challenge: since I met my Flemish companion, I felt obliged to try to learn it, but I was discouraged by the guttural sounds, incomprehensible long words filled with harsh sounds never pronounced before! Since Milo’s birth, however, I hear it every day and I am inevitably picking up a few words and the sentence structure. When I hear my companion speaking on the phone I understand the gist of the conversation and sometimes I decrypt full sentences. Little by little…

I work in an international environment, surrounded mostly by Europeans. Every day I get to speak English, Italian and French at work. At home it’s English with my man, Italian with my son and French with the nanny. It’s only recently that I realized that I was addicted to this, that I consider it a luxury.

Why do I like it so much? Perhaps because each language brings out a different nuance of our soul, it allows my chamaleon personality to play out its game…Each language has its rhythm and pace, its semantic weight and its idiomatic expressions.

There are days when I don’t find my words in any of the three…or, often, when I speak with my man I throw in a word in French and it takes me a while to find the English equivalent. The first days after Milo’s birth we were so overwhelmed that we were mixing everything! I would take Italian worlds and anglicize them…I was a mess!

But in general I think it’s great mental gymnastics and it allows for a wider range of linguistic expression. And, above all, it allows me to reach out to and communicate with a much wider number of people…that’s the real thrill!

9 comments:

giovanni said...

The soul needs attention, care, caressing... Language, acting, playing is essential for some people. Without it you starve, dies a part of your soul… J’exagère un peu, comme toujours quand je m’exprime librément. At this moment I drink, no, I nip (that word may just be Dutch) from a glass of calvados, my favourite liquor... I let sink in your thoughts, Clo, which I recognise... je me reconnais. There is only one difference between you and me: you seem to feel rather sure about your English and French, and rightly so since I (but whom am I? maar wie ben ik?) hardly see any mistakes (but I think it is gist, not jist...) while I know I make many mistakes in English, French and Spanish – cometo errores, casi en cada frase... But the thrill... yeah, I feel the same. At my office, I can speak Spanish with a colleague if I wish, she is latinoamericana, but for some reason I stopped speaking Spanish to her a few years ago when I put on my Italian suit and started pronouncing Spanish words the Italian way to make myself understandable in the south of Italy where I wandered around... And it worked. I did as if I spoke Italian, as I always do when I want to speak a language, it’s theatre for me, and there was just one older lady whom I like a lot, and she me too, I think, who corrected me every now and then, with a smile on her face, putting to test my laziness. Only at high school I ever was a serious student, not of languages in general (English, German, French, and initially Latin and Greek too, but I quit the gymnasium) but of French, studying its grammar, and expanding my vocabulary… Now I just use my chameleonic capacities and musicality, and then I enjoy thoroughly the speaking or writing of a foreign language, which for me more than anything else is sound. Sometimes I speak English with a French accent or French with an English accent or Spanish with an American accent… Je m'arrête. Saluti, Giovanni.

Clo said...

Thanks for the heads up on gist/jist, you are right! My american copy editor missed that one!
I like your metaphore with acting and theater, I never thought of it in that way...it's sure that we are slightly differetn while speaking different languages, sometimes even the voice's pitch changes dramatically. When I met my beau we spoke English with each other, and now that we live in France we have a hard time speaking French with one another: it feels fake...

Alice in Austria said...

one does get addicted to it, doesn't one ... and mixing is fun, as long as others in my environment do the same and/or understand what I am talking about. It's also been a source of embarrassment to me, though. Because sometimes when I can't think of the right German word I have the perfect word in English and so I use it - and people who don't speak English that well give me weird looks and think I am trying to show off my language skills or something. That's the only downside to it all - people who are not part of this can easily misunderstand ...

giovanni said...

I speak sometimes Spanish with my belle or French or English, depending on our company. I even sometimes speak "Gronings" with her, but because of the difficult diphtonghs of that language I find it hard to speak. Do you ever speak Italian with a French accent, just for fun? Does your beau also speak all these languages fluently?

Clo said...

Sophie, I know exactly what you mean...also, there are words that are not translatable directly in another language and sometimes we make up something to express a concept coming from the other language....I got my share of blank stares in return over the years!

Giovanni, I speak Italian with a French or American accent when I talk on the phone with my siblings, sometimes. It is indeed our way to joke. My beau speaks Nederlande, French, English, German and a very good Italian. But he does not like to speak Italian with me! I think he's self conscious about it!

giovanni said...

Maybe he doesn't like to speak Italian to you because you speak it better or because you correct him... This sounds like a very down to earth explanation... based on my own difficulty of speaking the language of my wife with her. Only recently, after a bike trip in northern Germany, speaking German all the time and then passing the border and visiting relatives I suddenly could not resist to talk Gronings. Have you ever been in Groningen?

Juliet said...

I fully understand your love of languages! I only hope that one day I can be as well travelled, and know as many, as you do.

giovanni said...

Hi, I've put a comment in your other blog under "Quelle langue au dîner ?" Thanks for the comment on the crying (weeping?) kid. Un saludo, Giovanni.

giovanni said...

Bonjour ! I also put a comment on your Italian blog. Que tengas un buen dia! Giovanni