Thursday, July 21, 2011

Parlez-vous English?

I'm a dork.
(Duh, you blog.)
So sometimes I journal about my life.
(Duh, you blog.)

When I started my journal entry about France, the first thing that I wrote about was the language. I took enough French in high school and college to be able to speak to people, but learning it in American classrooms is completely different from being on the streets of a French city. What you don't realize in class is that the words you are learning, these strange formations of letters and sounds...they have...meaning.

"Well, duh, you stupid American."

Laugh if you want, but I'm serious. I didn't understand how these words can be used as keys to unlock the ideas flowing out of someone's brain and sliding onto their teeth and tongue until I had a need to open the lock.

Being able to communicate with a stranger in a way that is foreign to you but comfortable to them is simply wonderful. You feel as though you belong. You can sink into the knowledge that even while you stumble over words and phrases, what you're saying has some semblance of meaning to them. Even reading street signs seems like a treasure.

Not to mention that on a trip composed of Americans, you become extremely popular when it comes time to order food or ride the Metro. The very first night we were there, our trip leader went up to the information desk and asked, "Parlez-vous ingles?"

I almost died.

But speaking the language was one of my favorite things about France, because it kept me from being too much a tourist on my tourist trip. I was able to talk to people, make acquaintances, and get the information I needed when I needed it. I could keep from standing out too badly in a crowd. (Although being the, as the Russians call us obnoxious Americans, "americos" that I am, fitting in ended as soon as I laughed. /Squawked.) I got to tell all of my friends what the enthusiastic audience members were saying when they approached us after a concert to thank us and applaud us. And even though language barriers are miniscule for children, I was able to play with the French kids I met and teach them American games.

I Not to mention Parisian, which is almost the same thing.

Now, contrast that with getting off the airplane in Kyiv, with my luggage nowhere to be found, and being greeted by this:

потерянный багаж

Confession: I have no idea how to read that. I google translated "lost luggage." Not only did I not know the language, I didn't even know the alphabet. Standing in line at the lost luggage office, listening to strangers speak a language that I couldn't even separate into words, and having officials give me forms and point me to other desks with unreadable signs, I couldn't help but wonder what I'd gotten myself into.

Thank goodness I was working in an English camp.

Maybe it was because I had just been in France and connected so much to the country because of the language, but the first few days that we spent in Kyiv freaked me out a little. If I were to get off on my own, I would be done for. I felt impaired, as though I couldn't really connect to the city without understanding what was being said.

So, I did my sightseeing, and hung out with my lovely (English-speaking) tour guides, and enjoyed what I saw.

It wasn't until I went back to Kyiv at the end of the trip that I got the interesting perspective of being the translated-for instead of the translated. The students who had been working with me to learn English all week were suddenly taking care of me, ordering food for me, and getting directions for me--in Russian. (I think. It might have been Ukrainian. Shoot, it could have been Polish for all that I know.)

I was completely and cluelessly grateful. I did a whole lot of clumsy smiling and nodding. I wonder if that's how my tripmates felt when I ordered pizzas in France? Of course, they didn't get the cool experience I had of hearing my friends' accents suddenly "disappear" when they began speaking their native language. (Yes, that thought actually went through my pea-brained head.)

Forced dependency is humbling, but good. Because as much as I can speak bad French, I'm not French. If I had tried too hard to speak bad Russian, I might have started thinking that I was practically Russian enough and missed the point.

It was cool to have them order gelato for me too, but gelato is cool anywhere.

I missed having the connection that I had to France, though. It was incredible that I could sneakily insert myself into the culture's surface by saying "jambon" instead of "ham." If I go back to Ukraine, I'm definitely learning enough to order my own borsch.

I'm sad to say, of all my time spent in Ukraine, I really only used one word effectively: собачка. Sobachka.



At English camp, everyone you want to hug speaks English. But dogs you want to
cuddle with obstinately refuse to learn.

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