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Eric: Culture and Identity, and the kindness of coffee counter clerks.

They are, in the end, two of the simplest transactions in Western Civilization.

Seriously. You're on a long trip, on major highways. You pull off, and hit the drive through of a McDonald's. You order one of the extra value meals, with water. (Water and coffee are about all I can have from a McDonald's beverage menu.) You then stop at a coffee shop with a travel mug from that coffee shop, and get a refill with cream. I've done both thousands of times. I could do them in my sleep.

The highway in question was the Transcanada, heading southeast through Quebec. My ultimate goal was a border crossing in Vermont.

Now, the trip had been a lot of fun, up until that point. A little time in Ithaca and Syracuse, to show Weds some of the places I came of age as an idiotic twenty two year old. A drive north, across the border at the Thousand Islands. (A border crossing with a jam packed automobile, as we were moving Weds North. We were concerned of delays while being searched. As it happened, it took maybe twenty-two seconds of conversation and in we went.) And then, up into the greater Metropolitan Ottawa area.

Now, Canada is not America. There are a thousand reminders of that fact in every direction if you know to look. But Canada is comfortable for Americans. Especially for Americans like me. I grew up on the New Brunswick border. We used to go to Canada for lunch, at the Maple Leaf restaurant in Claire. I come from Acadia, where a variant of French is used on the street. I had decent enough French grades in school and I can still swear a blue streak in that hallowed patois.

But now, I was in Quebec. And it really hit home as I pulled up to the speaker box.

Intellectually, I knew the woman said something like "bienvenue à McDonald. Est-ce que je peux prendre votre ordre?" But it came out as meaningless sounds. All my smug complacency as to my knowledge and my place in the world just deflated.

"Parlez d'anglais?" I stammered, getting in wrong in more than one way.

There was a long pause. A difference voice said a curt "Yis?"

I ordered a Meal number two with water.

There was another pause. "Yis?"

I said something, relatively banal sounding, about chicken. It was the grilled chicken I was going for.

"Deux, yis. Yis yis."

Having no idea what else to do, I pulled to the window.

Three people were there. They were all smiling. I handed them a bill, and they murmured to each other. One nodded to me in an exaggerated fashion. They were all being very, very nice. They counted change, murmuring words half in English and French, and smiling very broadly when they handed me the money.

Now, I've heard stories about the Quebecois being (for lack of a better word) snarky with people who don't speak the language. I'm here to report that didn't happen. I legitimately think every person in this McDonalds wanted to help me, take my money, and give me food.

The same with the Tim Hortons I then went for coffee from. I actually walked into that place, as I had a travel mug, and it's significantly easier to hand someone a travel mug than it is to try and explain that you want coffee in a travel mug you already have to a person who doesn't speak your language. Walking in, I nodded pleasantly to the people coming out. They were dressed... well, somewhat differently than I would expect Americans to dress. I can't put my finger on it. Their clothes weren't radically different, but it was obvious just at the looking that they were people of another culture.

I held the door for a girl coming out as I went in. She favored me with a smile and a blur of language that might as well have been speaking in Tongues. I nodded, smiling without speaking. I felt my whole bearing shifting, becoming nonthreatening. I am a stranger here, I seemed to be saying. I mean no harm, nor disrespect. I simply need caffeine and I will be on my way.

I managed to stumble through je ne parle pas français at the counter. The girl behind the counter got a look of panic, looked around for someone, then gave me the most winning smile she could. "Yis?" she asked.

I held up the cup. She looked relieved and took it. She said something in French.

I blinked.

She repeated herself, slowly, then pantomimed putting things in the cup.

"Oh!" I said. "Coffee and cream?"

She paused, then nodded. She got the coffee and the cream. I think she would have liked to ask me about flavors and options, but neither one of us wanted that, right then.

She handed it to me very slowly, speaking in French very softly, enunciating each word.

And it hit me.

I was an idiot.

Literally. The only way that any of these high school kids could deal with me was to treat me as one of the feebleminded. Like I was developmentally disabled or just plain stupid. None of them were angry or annoyed -- just compassionate, and sympathetic to the sub-literate moron in their midst.

It is a shocking discovery. Less than seventy miles from my native land, myself a man who grew up in Franco-America, and my entire identity as an intelligent and literate man, given to rhetoric and clever turns of phrase, was obliterated. I was literally in a culture where I was reduced to pantomime and the kindness of sympathetic, almost patronizing strangers.

It's one thing to be depressed. I was plenty depressed. Leaving Weds behind in her home and native land was like cutting off a foot and replacing it with a clever bit made out of lego. I could walk and all, but every step reminded me of the loss. Now, I wasn't just depressed, I was an idiot.

I tried to get Ketchup chips for a friend from a convenience store, but I was simply not bright enough. The concept of "ketchup chips" was too difficult, and they weren't sitting out where I could get them. I got back into my car, thanked God for "pay at the pump" gas when I needed gas (though that involved long minutes of peering at the french display and occasionally making best guesses -- I must have looked downright stupid to any onlookers), and then driving once more, to make it back to America, where I could once more be a smart person.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at October 11, 2006 1:06 PM


Comment from: J.(Channing)Wells [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 1:32 PM

It's hard for anyone to lose his or her language, but particularly hard for writers. Words are more than just our stock in trade, they are our weapons, our security blankets, our (dare I say) raison d'être. In college, I studied patients with aphasia due to stroke, persons for whom the thought-execution chain of language was partially or wholly broken. It manifested in various ways: words would sometimes vanish utterly, sometimes be dredgeable with much effort and would sometimes be wholly replaced with gibberish and nonsense. It's still a hard thing for me to think about to this day, a tiny seeded little worry crouching in the back of my brain right next to my fear of death. And a good place for it, too, because sometimes I cannot help but feel that without words, the me who is would be dead and I would be forced to be a completely different person. Maybe that person would be more honest, more stripped, more clean -- words, by their nature, are essentially illusion, after all -- but that person would also be mighty depressed for a good long time.

Anyway. Hell of a perception shift, yis?

Comment from: quiller [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 2:49 PM

There was a play we read in English class when I was in France (I'll skip the context for now, but this was American High School English) called The Foreigner, which had some of the funniest renditions of the phenomenon of dealing with someone who doesn't speak your language. Particularly that if they don't understand your language, maybe they will if you speak louder and slower!

But even speaking French it is a struggle to go from having the vocabulary of an intellectual elite, to the vocabulary of an 8 year old. (Though, of course, as a latin derived language I could often fake it as the big words in English and French are often only a French accent in difference. I might not know the word for smart, but there is a decent chance that I can use intellectuel... so my vocabulary often seemed bigger than it was)

Incidentally, this is a similar obstacle to one I have about dating non-native english speakers. So much of my personality is based on puns and turns of phrases and like things, and an audience that can't keep up with me, or doesn't understand my jokes (or even that I'm making them) can be a real drag. I guess the need to seem clever is a strong one...

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 3:17 PM

Well, as any linguist can tell you, if you want to try to tell a joke in a language not your own, make one about a duck. For whatever reason, ducks are funny (albeit in different ways) in pretty much every language out there.

As for suddenly being unable to communicate with others... that's all too familiar. It's terrible to essentially be a part of some reality apart from the consentual reality around you. Even should you speak the same base language as those around you, you can't really communicate with them.

I can see why that would weigh heavily on someone who brought himself up to be a writer, or any variety of communicator. You lose, even if for a short time, who you are. I can easily see how that would suck.

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 3:21 PM

Living in Arizona, Spanish is my "Secondary language that I need to know when travelling near the border." Having several similar experiences to the one you described, but in Spanish, I can only imagine how big an idiot I would feel if I was called upon to speak broken French (Franglish?). At least vowels only have one pronounciation in Spanish, and there are generally less than 5 of them in any given word.

I suppose if I should ever have to travel to France, I would memorize a number of quotes from Voltaire, and respond with one of them whenever I was asked a question. People would either think I was a brilliant student of philosophy or a madman, and either way they wouldn't feel much need to talk to me. Plus, if Jerry Lewis is any indication, the French have a hard time telling the difference between genius and madness. Or they just think that's what all Americans are like.

Comment from: J.(Channing)Wells [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 3:37 PM

Ah, oui, Franglais! Je parle Franglais très good, actualment. C'est une awesome langue.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 4:14 PM

Nice to know the talk-slowly thing is universal. In the M*A*S*H episode when they're lost in the ambulance bus, B.J. implies only Americans do that.

I suppose in a place where my language wasn't spoken (if I was thinking fast enough), I'd get a pack of 3x5 cards and a pencil, and draw what I needed to say to servicepeople. Prolly develop a pool of standbys, and keep them in my shirt pocket with the blanks. "Extra Value Meal #2" would be one. I wonder how I'd communicate "plain cheeseburgers" with a cartoon.

Comment from: Dan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 4:19 PM

I recently spent a week in Japan and went through roughly the same experiences. In my case I'm a very visual person -- looking at the French above I can work out most of it (I learned a bit of the language once upon a time). However, I'm in the same boat when it is spoken, to me it just sounds like gibberish.

Japanese is even worse. There's no common basis for the language, I can't read the text *or* tell what the other person is saying. I spent more time that I would like to admit playing the "point at the item" game, especially when ordering off of menus.

And yes, even there they try the "talk slowly and maybe they'll understand it" game.

Comment from: Bertson [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 4:45 PM

Is Weds living in Ottawa now, then? I love this city, personally.

As for the French, it's especially bad because Quebecois French is quite different than classical French.

Comment from: Abby L. [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 5:03 PM

I know how you feel. When I was in Japan it was just like that, except that instead of just not understanding the language, you were also functionally illiterate. Knowing a goodly amount of Japanese helps, but when I first got there, it was all, "Oh shit I used to know that kanji but now..." and "I can't remember how to order food."

I remember the first time I actually interacted with a Japanese person in Japanese. I went to a Mcdonald's-esque fast food place and haltingly ordered a "teriyaki tamago bagaa," (Teriyaki egg burger) stumbling because I had forgotten both how to quickly read katakana, one of the character sets, and because I couldn't remember how to order.

He asked me to repeat myself and I did, a tad louder. He repeated my order back to me and I nodded sheepishly. Then he smiled encouragingly and said, "Nihongo ha jouzu desu ne..." (Your Japanese is really good!) He said it the same way you tell a kid that their picture of a doggy is really good! (It's a cow, mom!)

Comment from: dagbrown [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 5:35 PM

I remember this one beefbowl place in Vancouver where the lady running it simply dealt with her lack of facility in English by speaking Japanese Real Slow And Real Clear to the customers who couldn't speak Japanese.

I'm pretty used to being jouzu'ed by now. After a couple of years, my language level has gone from Awful to just plain Bad, making me able to at least disclaim any kind of skill when I get a jouzu.

Still, after months and months of being told how great my Japanese is, I was at an okonomiyaki joint the other night, and the owner, who knows my friend and I pretty well by now, stopped by to chat and to banter with other members of his staff. At one point, he turned to one of the waitresses and said, "Those guys? Dave and Drew? They're *really good* at English." I nearly died laughing.

Comment from: eben [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 6:29 PM

Its comforting to me that I am not the only American person who finds it difficult to refer to Canada in writing without eventually making incidental use of the phrase "home and native land." I blame Barenaked Ladies, personally -- what's your excuse?

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 8:10 PM

There was a play we read in English class when I was in France (I'll skip the context for now, but this was American High School English) called The Foreigner, which had some of the funniest renditions of the phenomenon of dealing with someone who doesn't speak your language. Particularly that if they don't understand your language, maybe they will if you speak louder and slower!

I was "David" in "The Foreigner," about twelve years ago now.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 8:12 PM

Its comforting to me that I am not the only American person who finds it difficult to refer to Canada in writing without eventually making incidental use of the phrase "home and native land." I blame Barenaked Ladies, personally -- what's your excuse?

Er... the Canadian National Anthem? ;)

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 10:44 PM

Yeah, but how many of us Americans have any regular cause to listen to the Canadian national anthem?

Personally, I blame the NHL, which is where I get all my "Oh Canada" listens. I know an astounding amount of that song considering I mostly know it from drunk American hockey fans singing along.

Comment from: Vorn [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 11:37 PM

I ran lights for the Westport (CT) Community Theater rendition of The Foreigner. It's a great play.

For those of you not in the know: The Foreigner is about a British army officer and science-fiction pulp magazine editor taking a vacation at a small lakeside resort-oid, and he doesn't want to be bothered - so his friend tells the proprietor that he doesn't speak English.... without informing him of this first. Hilarity - and a run-in with the Klan - ensues.

At one point the foreigner tells a story in his made-up language, a variation on Little Red Riding Hood. ...though during one of the rehearsals for Westport, we tried replacing it with C3PO's story for the Ewoks. It... almost worked.


Comment from: William_G [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 11, 2006 11:53 PM

Dude, that's my entire life here in Korea.

And it's wonderful. Cuz let's face it, most people have nothing worthwhile to say on their better days. And being able to smile, wave your hand and say, "Sorry, I dont understand" is a great way to avoid unwanted conversation on the subway.

Two thumbs up for lack of communication skills.

Comment from: Alexis Christoforides [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 12:47 AM

The funny thing is that the problem is much deeper than it sounds. When you move to another country, yeah, you expect that you're going to have quite a lot of trouble communicating (to their credit, most Americans would simplify their wording when I did not understand them, which actually helps). But after a while it's not so hard, and I since I'm not an especially literate person I don't mind if people don't know the stupid Kavafis quotes everyone back home used to know from high school.

And then I try to make a joke. Long story short it took me approximately 2 years to make people laugh once more on a long monologue, while, like quiller, I realized that all Greek wordplay, silly slang , in-jokes and catchphrases I know and have been using for almost twenty years are completely and utterly useless here and anywhere else in the world. It's depressing.

I've always loved British and American humour so the transition is one I can live with, but I can't help but miss the absurd hand-waving, sound effects and rough redneck language of my youth.

Comment from: Aerin [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 1:49 AM

Oh, I feel you. I'm pretty literate in most of the Romantic and Germanic languages, so given a bit of writing in one of these languages, with time I can puzzle it out. But I'm positively backward at speaking Spanish, the only other language in which I have a modicum of verbal fluency. I almost considered getting a Spanish language pin on my nametag, until I actually tried to carry on conversations in Spanish with guests. It's really frustrating.

And you're definitely right about humor in other languages, Alexis. I know two separate Jungle Cruise skippers who have almost identical stories about that. One is a Korean guy who had a boat full of Korean tourists, and one is a guy who speaks French pretty well and had a French couple on his boat one night with no one else. They both attempted to give the spiel in the appropriate language, which turned out to mostly consist of "Look, a tiger! Look, some snakes! Look, hippos!" However, they both did manage to pull off the sleeping zebra joke, which is funny in any language. If I ever get the balls to pull of a Spanish spiel, I imagine it will sound pretty similar. ("Aww, los leones estan protegiendo la cebra durmienda!")

Comment from: Abby L. [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 2:01 AM

I'm pretty used to being jouzu'ed by now. After a couple of years, my language level has gone from Awful to just plain Bad, making me able to at least disclaim any kind of skill when I get a jouzu.

Oh I got used to it by the end. But getting it first thing was so novel to me, after having heard that it would happen a lot from teachers and other students. I almost wanted to take a commemorative photo. ("Oh hey, this is the first time I got jouzu-ed!")

Wasn't really the first, though. First was from another student on LJ. My reply? "What does jouzu mean?" Haw haw.

Comment from: Zernik [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 2:41 AM

It's even worse when you know the people who have to act like you're an idiot. Like family.

I've got to admit, my Hebrew isn't so bad as all that, but it's really a shock to go from defining myself as "clever", and "good with words", to going to a language where, at best, I'm at third-grade level. And where all of the high-brow terms are either native Hebrew or Russian.

The really ego-crushing part is that I like to think of myself as multilingual, until I actually have to live in the language. Then I'm just looking for someone who speaks English.

Comment from: masque12 [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 5:20 AM

I took a year of Japanese in high school when it was offered for the first time. The best sentence I learned translated into "I know my Japanese is really bad, but I'm doing the best that I can."

Of course I've forgotten everything I learned except for some of the more colorful phrases that I learned from the resident anime freaks in the class. We made a special point to use those loudly and often during class, much to the chagrin of our Japanese teacher who seemed to be under the impression that we didn't actually know what we were saying. It's either that, or she was simply too scared to actually send any of us crazy gaijin to the office...

Comment from: Tephlon [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 6:43 AM

As a dutch guy that is pretty fluent in English (a mix between American and British english for which I blame TV) it was quite a shock to start living in Portugal. Luckily for me, most portuguese of my generation speak basic english because they had classes and, and I think this is the important bit, because the English shows don't get dubbed, but subtitled.

Still, I've been subject to the slower and louder phenomenon but my favorite variation was: "Do you want bread... with... cheese...? *Long pause* Cheese...? On the bread?"

Most important sentence I've learned: "O meu Português não e muito bom", which I am happy to say is getting only rare use, nowadays.

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 10:08 AM

"Louder and slower" persists because it does sometimes work. It doesn't help if the other person doesn't know the language at all, of course, but if they know a little, louder and slower may make the difference between them sussing you out and them having no idea what you're talking about.

For instance, between junior high, high school and college, I spent 6.5 years studying Spanish. But even at the height of my comprehension (I've lost most of it through disuse) regular conversational Spanish was too fast for me. I just couldn't parse it quickly enough to keep up, plus the average person mumbles at least a little. But if the person I was talking to slowed down and talked more loudly, I could generally follow it.

It also may help some in Japan, where a lot of people study English in school, but few learn it well enough to understand a native speaker. Slow down and speak more clearly, though, and they may be able to figure out what the gaijin wants. Presuming you got one of the people who remembers any of it. :)

Comment from: larksilver [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 10:42 AM

I don't know about louder, but slower does sometimes work. In fact, when faced with a stream of Spanish, my standard response is "muy despacio, por favor. Tengo un poquito de espanol solamente." May not be good Spanish, but they get the point, generally - I speak only a little bit of Spanish, but if you speak slower, I may be able to make out what you need.

Whenever I'm among those who speak another language, I always get myself into trouble. After years of classical voice training, including massive amounts of diction in Latin, English, Spanish, Italian, French and German, I sound like I know what I'm talking about. When I don't. Only, because I speak it clearly and well - generally with the accents all in the right place, the native speakers seem to get more frustrated with me than they would if I just played the louder and slower game in English. Who knew being a good mimic would get me in trouble?

Comment from: John Fiala [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 11:21 AM

My company has an office in France, and the guy whose duties I was taking over was there, so I spent two weeks in France last year. And not two weeks in Paris, although I did go up to Paris for the weekend, but two weeks in Montpellier, which isn't a vacation hotspot the last time I checked.

And I got along pretty well. A fair number of people knew the basics of English a little, and even if they weren't they were willing to figure out how to communicate, even the lady running the register at the little grocery/department store in downtown MP. But then, going in, I knew it was going to be difficult - the only French I've picked up is from knowing that dateheuredeb is the beginning of the datetime of the call in the database, and what little I remember of Latin and Spanish.

What was interesting was sitting in a pizza parlor, in France, with a waitress who was happy to practice her English because she was going to be going on a group trip to New York. People like to communicate, if you're willing to make the effort, even if it's harder than usual.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 11:24 AM

Say, great alliteration in the post title, by the way.

Comment from: Meagen Image [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 12:36 PM

Incidentally, this is a similar obstacle to one I have about dating non-native english speakers. So much of my personality is based on puns and turns of phrases and like things, and an audience that can't keep up with me, or doesn't understand my jokes (or even that I'm making them) can be a real drag. I guess the need to seem clever is a strong one...

I feel vaguely insulted here, since there is a strong implication that no non-native English speaker can ever make or even *understand* puns in English.

I happen to be a non-native English speaker who *delights* in wordplay and puns (and English is certainly well-suited for them). I also happen to be dating an American, who sometimes takes a moment or two to catch the jokes *I* make, and he's no idiot himself.

So, yeah. Maybe I'm making a big deal out of this, but the original statement kind of came across as an unfair generalisation.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 12:52 PM

One thing I always find funny is language instruction in American schools. Seeing as I've learned two different languages in America in an academic setting, I know a bit of what I talk about here.

One problem right off is that instructors lean on English to get their points across, even when the students know enough rudimentary language points to communicate and the language being taught is the native tongue of the professor. I saw this repeatedly in my Japanese classes in college - I sometimes got the sense that my Japanese teachers preferred to use English over Japanese whenever they could.

The other is that language instruction is only vaguely concerned with being able to communicate about average things. More often than not, it's geared towards having the grounding to talk about other academic pursuits in the new language.

I'm a shameful example of this carried out to its absurd conclusion. I studied French for eight years. I'm often considered fluent, but near-fluent is probably a more apt description. But still, I've studied the language for a long time, and I received a BA in French.

To this day, I can give a quite erudite explanation, in pretty much perfect French, about the usage of chiascuro in Monet's "La Japonaise," along with a discussion of alienation and xenophilia as also evidenced in many popular French writings of the time. However, I don't know how to ask for a new spoon at a restaurant.

Given what a premium it is to actually communicate with others in day-to-day life, you'd think language classes would be more geared towards teaching people to do that (seriously, what I wouldn't have given for a "French For Everyday Life" course in college - if nothing else, it would be practically guaranteed to be more fascinating than the class "The French Epistelary Novel").

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 1:20 PM

That reminds me of Dave Barry's comment that, when he went to Europe, thanks to his high school French classes, he was able to identify the furniture in any given room. "Look- it is a chair!" "Look- a bureau!" I'm having problems with my foreign language right now because in high school, the teachers explained everything in English, and in college, they explain it in Spanish. It's a bit of a learning curve, but you learn the language a lot faster.

And 32, seriously? The French Epistelary Novel? I was unaware there were any besides the Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, although you could probably get a good class out of those two books alone.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 2:21 PM

Oh yeah - before Flaubert blew everything up with Madame Bovary (and you have no idea how glad I am for that novel), the epistolary (pardon my original typo, based on a lazy French translation) novel was absolutely huge in France, and not just from the elder Dumas.

Probably the work I spent the most time with was Dangerous Liaisons (which is right there with The Three Musketeers as the most famous of the form), but I had an awful lot of time with The Persian Letters as well (probably because it satirized, and thus said much, about the culture of pre-Revolution France).

Comment from: quiller [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 3:17 PM

When I went to Europe for the first time at 15, I stayed with a german family. Their son was 13 and had just finished up his first year of French, I had had 3 years of French, but 2 of those were Junior High French, so it was more like 2 years of High School French. We went on vaction into France and we wound up making friends with a French girl. There I found that I could barely carry on a conversation with the girl, meanwhile my german companion, younger than me with only a year of French could speak it just fine, only stopping every now and then to ask me what a word was. (Remember, this is a german child, so he is asking me in one foreign language (that he'd had 3 or so years of) what a word was in another foreign language.) I could usually come up with the answer (I'd been decent on the French tests after all) and he'd go right back into it. This is where I figured out that I'd never learn to speak French in the US. It is just not taught as practical knowledge in most places, and there is little occasion to practice. (I was only able to start French so soon because we were in Vermont, a short clip down from Quebec, but as a kid this did not translate into many chances to practice.)

When I was in France I count two moments of important knowledge to me. The first was the time I actually dreamt in French. This was probably due to immersion having filled my mental pathways so much that it was reflected in my sub-conscious, but getting French into my sub-conscious was still an achievement. The second was when I was reading Asterix Chez les Bretons, and realized that a song that Obelix was singing was actually a filk of a Brittany drinking song I knew of. I think because it was the first French humor I understood that was of the nature of my own sense of humor.

I know one of my problems in France was when certain French people heard my accent they would try to speak English to me. This didn't bother me too much in casual conversation, it is good practice for both people to try and discourse in the other's language, but when I'm trying to conduct a business transaction, it makes it that much harder when I could understand their French much better than their English. (Basically Written Comprehension > Spoken Comprehension > Speaking Ability > Writing Ability)

And Meagen, I'd never insult you vaguely. ;-> As a general rule most non-native English speakers have difficulty with humor, particularly if they didn't start English early or have a lot of exposure to media in English. There are always exceptions to general rules though, and I enjoy dating exceptional people. I also figure if there is one area where I'm allowed to be discriminatory, it is in who I choose to date, as frankly, it isn't like I'm withholding that big a prize from those who don't make the cut ;->. (And because attraction and comfort are so important but follow strange and non-sensical rules).

Comment from: Thomas Blight [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 5:23 PM

Heck, I have ten years of french schooling (Wee ages to grade ten. Wish I continued taking it but poor scheduling at my high school took care of that) and I can't carry on a conversation in french without pausing to think of the right words. Sure, my french grammar is very formal, with all the right tenses and such, but I just don't have the right vocabulary. I know many verbs and how to conjugate them, but their english meanings do not come quickly to me and you can't use verbs if you don't know the noun you mean.

Also, I will not be getting my bilingual certificate, which is required for most direct government jobs. Many of my friends, who are french immersion (emersion?) students, will receive them. My brother will. Even if I were still taking french today, I wouldn't be able to, because I switched out of immersion in grade four.

So really, despite being a Canadian, I'm no more at home in Quebec than any of you are.

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 12, 2006 7:07 PM

Larksilver: True dat. I've got a good ear for accents and pronounciation, so when I start out learning a language, I sound much better at it than I really am.

Comment from: miyaa [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 13, 2006 12:11 AM

I have experienced it all in spades. My whole life is pretty much a microcosm of all of these inadequacies, given that I have a mother who is from Thailand, and as a child, I lived around people speaking languages that I could sometimes get, but now I probably couldn't tell you more than just "thank you" and "pocky."

I do love languages, particularly latin because it's dead and unless you somehow find yourself working for the Vatican, you have very little need to speak latin (and the Vatican's version is not classical latin, so it's more dead than room full of star trek red-wearing ensigns). My mother promises me that one day, she'll take me to Thailand and I'll be immersed into her mother tongue. I fear I'll drown in this immersion...and I'm a terrible swimmer.

Comment from: B. Durbin [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 13, 2006 12:17 AM

When I learned Spanish in school, it was primarily text and video based (including a wonderful teaching soap opera called Destinos in which they speed up their speech as the series progresses, so you adapt), so when I got to high school, I could understand it pretty well but I spoke like an idiot. With a good accent.

And yes, that will get you into trouble. My brother took me to a restaurant with a group of friends once, and made the mistake of saying "Muchos gracias" to the Spanish-speaking waiter. Now, we're from California, where that phrase is all but standard English, and this was in Washington state, and moreover, far from farm country. The waiter lit up and started rattling off something or other, while I was trying to stifle laughter.

Then to top it off, one of his friends asked what the "mole"— one syllable— stuff on the menu was. Between total ignorance and apparent fluency, nobody could win...

Comment from: Tephlon [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 13, 2006 5:51 AM

@Dave van Dommelen / Larksilver:

I have the same. I'm a pretty good mimic.

My theory is that that's so because I've moved around a bit from one region of the Netherlands to another when I was young, thus having to adapt my "dialect".

Comment from: Black Kitty [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 15, 2006 7:01 PM

I remember developing some photographs for an art installation and kept watching this Italian man trying to use the self-serve stations to develop his. He didn't speak a word of English and he was having a hard time working the machine. I forgot whether he asked me for help or if I approached him but I ended up helping him develop the photos while trying to explain to him how it works (and saving him from developing over 300 photographs when he only wanted 6.) I knew he didn't understand a word of English but I kept using it anyway.

I find I do that a lot when I encounter people who needed help (or vice versa) but didn't understand any English. I did the same thing in Japan and the two of us were talking to each other in a language we had no clue in. (After much pointing and shaking of head, she finally understood that I was returning a camera I found on a bench, not asking her to take my picture with that camera.) I think I do it partly in hopes of them understanding a key word or my own tone of voice but also partly because it's for my own benefit. It's just an automatic thing sometimes.

I think I'm used to being a linguistic idiot. Years of being in Chinese school and French classes and getting barely anywhere with them has made me a bit more comfortable with not understanding. I actually loved the fact that I couldn't understand a word of Japanese when I was in Japan. It was the ultimate tourist license. :)

Comment from: gwalla [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 19, 2006 1:59 AM

Abby: that reminds me of a story my parents tell about the time they lived in Japan (my dad was stationed there in the Navy before I was born). They went to a fast food restaurant for lunch. One item pictured on the menu above the counter looked pretty good, so they tried to order it.


The girl behind the counter gave them a quizzical look.

"Kaa-rii-rai-suu" they said, pointing at the picture.

"Oh, curried rice!" replied the girl.

Comment from: KenM [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 20, 2006 11:46 PM

For real condescension, though, I think the best place to go is China. I'm living here teaching English (I'm American) so I kind of stand out when I go most places, especially since I normally eat at little dive places a block or two from where I live. I actually took four years worth of Chinese at school, and did a session of immersive summer school there, so my Chinese is decent. Not fluent, not by a long shot, but I can often understand people (not that I don't ask people to speak slower often, or tell them I don't speak dialect). But I've found that expectations have been set so low, whether by other foreigners who never learned Chinese or by simple prejudice, that I've been complimented for saying "yeah" when I say I want hot peppers in my dumpling sauce. I hate to sound too easily offended, but I'm pretty sure that just being a white dude in China has more to do with their expectations than any previous experience with foreigners.

The really funny thing, though, was when I was travelling around with my Japanese friend. We started studying at the same time, and he's a bit better than I at the language. I'm sure you can guess why (even there's no genetic relationship between the two languages). So we were at a practically deserted museum in Kaifeng, and were wandering around, when the docent came up to him and started a conversation. I came over and joined the conversation, at which point I got complimented on my Chinese. I was happy, but I deflected it and said, "Oh, I'm just a student. Actually, the two of us are here studying abroad. We're in the same class." She turns to my friend and says, "You're not Chinese? I thought you were his translator." "No, no. We're both students." "Oh, so that's why your Chinese is so bad."

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