Do You Speak English?

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I first learned Eng­lish when I was in junior high. It’s not that I wasn’t a good stu­dent: I just didn’t give a damn. Our teacher had been to Eng­land once, prob­a­bly in the fifties. We had this stu­pid book about three friends—an Amer­i­can, an Irish and a British—and every year we would learn Christ­mas car­ols. Need­less to say I wasn’t pay­ing much atten­tion and spent most of the classes doing my Chi­nese home­work, hid­den behind the heater at the back of the room.

Eng­lish wasn’t pop­u­lar. French don’t like Eng­lish much (“they put vine­gar on chips and eat meat with mint sauce!”), and the rela­tion­ship with the USA has always been a bit rocky (“these warmongers/ burgers-eaters!”), so there were basi­cally no incen­tive to learn.

In 1999, I spent a sum­mer in Bei­jing, China. I was 16 and had naively decided I should explore the coun­try I had stud­ied for 3 years. So I packed my bags and left, leav­ing my par­ents wor­ried yet proud of their eldest daugh­ter. By the time I landed in Bei­jing, I had lost my con­fi­dence. I had entered a world I wasn’t really mas­ter­ing but I even­tu­ally made my way through it. It’s in Bei­jing I met Amer­i­cans for the first time of my life. I had trav­eled before in Eng­land and in var­i­ous parts of Europe but always with French peo­ple, so I never really had to com­mu­ni­cate in another lan­guage. And now here I was, speech­less. My Chi­nese was fine: 北京人 under­stood me most of time. The same wasn’t true for my Amer­i­can room­mates and for­eign­ers gen­er­ally speak­ing. My first room­mate was Indone­sian: we had no lan­guage in com­mon and she spoke bro­ken Chi­nese. I felt frus­trated and self-conscious: I was the lit­tle white girl whose Chi­nese was bet­ter than Eng­lish. I felt left-out. I swore I would learn English.

When I came back in France, I kept in touch with some friends I met in China. We exchanged emails in Eng­lish and I slowly improved my writ­ing. I would also lis­ten to a lot of Rock music as I always did, but I would also trans­late the lyrics. It was a bad idea to start with Pink Floyd and Nir­vana: just imag­ine me lying on my bed, a dic­tio­nary in one hand, twist­ing my hair, try­ing to make sense of these drug induced log­or­rhoea! By the time I fin­ished high school, I was top of my class in Eng­lish and was pretty con­fi­dent in my abilities.

Right after I grad­u­ated, I left for Hong Kong, where I some­how man­aged to get a job thanks to speak­ing Chi­nese. Even now, I’m not sure of what I actu­ally did in Hong Kong—this time was really con­fus­ing and the place I worked in was odd. Really odd. But sell­ing glass (!) to the world and teach­ing rich kids didn’t leave much room to French, and I ended up speak­ing Eng­lish most of time. How­ever, at the time, I hadn’t real­ized I spoke great Can­tonese Eng­lish: “more bet­ter” “long time no see”, “I tomor­row go to Shen­zhen” were the best way to communicate.

Right after Hong Kong, I went to meet Feng in Mex­ico. We hadn’t seen each other since Bei­jing in 1999 and we were ready for a long trip that would lead us to Bei­jing. I flew to Mex­ico. He met me at the air­port. It might sound like a roman­tic movie. But the romance momen­tar­ily paused when, twenty min­utes after land­ing, I declared:

Please, no Eng­lish, speak Chi­nese or Span­ish, I don’t under­stand you”.

Lis­ten­ing to Feng mak­ing con­ver­sa­tion on the way from the air­port, I had real­ized some­thing: I couldn’t under­stand a word of what he was say­ing. I was so used to botched Eng­lish that proper North Amer­i­can Eng­lish didn’t make much sense to me. Sure, I could pick up a word once in a while, out of a mush of words that I couldn’t dis­tin­guish. Any ques­tion was a strug­gle. “Do you want to take a shower now or later?” would be process in my head as “question+shower+later”, that was about it. Argu­ing, mak­ing deci­sion or express­ing feel­ings was way out of my league. I never felt that frus­trated my whole life, not to men­tion we were iso­lated in a Span­ish world.

After a cou­ple of weeks, I could under­stand Feng bet­ter, although mak­ing a sen­tence was still tak­ing all of my energy. But I was opti­mistic: I had almost fin­ished read­ing an Eng­lish book, Feng seemed to under­stand me, and I was almost there… right? I was actu­ally pretty dis­ap­pointed. In France and in China, I had been con­sid­ered as “bilin­gual” and I had expected Feng so men­tion my flu­ent Eng­lish. Okay, on sec­ond thought, maybe not “flu­ent”. But hey, it was pretty good for a French girl!

So, one night in Can­cun, I asked Feng how long it took him to be flu­ent in Eng­lish. He paused. I was actu­ally expect­ing some­thing like “I don’t know… cou­pla years, maybe?”, some­thing reach­able, some­thing that would show I was close, very close. He looked up and declared: “prob­a­bly ten years…

“That’s great”, I though. “Not only my Eng­lish sucks, but I also have to put out with the fact I’m gonna drag my lan­guage inabil­ity for the next eight years or so. May as well just give up right now!”

But my sign lan­guage abil­i­ties weren’t that good, so I didn’t give up and even­tu­ally, my Eng­lish improved. By the time we got back to Canada, I was com­fort­able enough.

Dur­ing the next three years, I expe­ri­enced Kiwi & Aus­tralian accent dur­ing our South Pacific trav­els, job hunt­ing back in Canada again, argu­ments, deal­ing with all kind of peo­ple, work­ing in a call cen­ter (where I was so uncom­fort­able with Que­bec accent that I asked to be switched to “Eng­lish only” calls), and every­day life’s prob­lems. I watched TV, read books, learned cul­tural jokes and bitched about the weather. I swore a lot and cried almost as much. Every new task required more vocab­u­lary, more cul­tural learn­ing and more slang—none of that was writ­ten in a book. I learned first­hand that lan­guage doesn’t come easy and that it takes a lot of con­fi­dence to stand up and talk in front of peo­ple. I some­times wished France had invaded the world and forced it to speak French. I dreamed of Esperanto. I loathed peo­ple who would look down upon me or those who would throw new words at me.

I feel like I’ve come a long way. My Eng­lish isn’t per­fect but I feel com­fort­able with it. I can switch back and forth between the two lan­guages when I teach. I’m not scared to talk to peo­ple. I can read all kind of medias, watch movies and TV, and—hope­fully!—write in Eng­lish. I love Eng­lish as much as I hated it before.

You know the funny thing? In my first Eng­lish class back in high school, I laughed when I learned Eng­lish didn’t really have con­ju­ga­tion per se: “wow, that’s gonna be easy!”

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

12 Comments

  1. You have come such a long way, it’s unbelievable! I know what you are saying about English seeming like it’d be easy to learn at first, it’s deceptive… my cousins always make me laugh, they say people from the US talk like dogs, as in, very guttural, like, rararara. Makes me laugh every time, it is kind of true, French people speak more from the mouth, US English comes from the throat (at least I think it does…).

    I’m thankful I learned English early on, when I was 7. It took a little while to lose my accent and get proficient, but now I regret not having a French accent… actually, I have a slight American accent when I speak French now 🙁

  2. You sure have come a long way Zhu. I’m amazed that English isn’t your first language! Imagine meeting Americans, for the first time, in Beijing! Too funny! 🙂 Hugs. Thanks for linking to me. I have done the same Sweetie!

  3. Your English is quite good my dear. I think the best languages to know are English, Spanish, French, and Chinese.

    And it seems as though you’re speaking all of those! I’m not speaking Chinese, so I’m a bit jealous.

  4. ErinOrtlund on

    Considering your story, your English (as seen on your blog) is very good!

    So if you don’t understand/like the Quebec accent, do you teach your students French as it is spoken in France, or have you had to adjust your accent to the Canadian context?

  5. “It was a bad idea to start with Pink Floyd and Nirvana : just imagine me lying on my bed, a dictionary in one hand, twisting my hair…”

    lmao!

    it seems like you’re doing pretty well with the English language now!

  6. Thanks all for your nice comments on my English ! I actually speak better than I write… I never really had a chance to write in English, that’s one of the reason I started this blog 😉

    Sebastien : you’re right, the way of speaking is very different from one country to another. Some cultures speak with the throat, some with the mouth, some with the nose… yep !

    Funny you have an American accent when you speak French ! Last time I went to France, people found I had an accent too 😀

    Dan : I visited the US first time in 2002 – long after all of my trip… Therefore, I first met Americans in China, I learned about the fast food culture in Salavador (where they have a long avenida with all the US fast food I didn’t know about !), I watched all the Hollywood movies in HK… Weird, I know ! 😀


    Wat
    : you’re close, just have to learn Chinese now ! My Spanish isn’t that good anymore cause I rarely speak it, but I used to be able to have a conversation back in South America.

    ErinOrtlund : Now, I know Quebec slang cause I’ve been there for a while. I can understand it but I won’t use it : sounds weird in my mouth…

    I usually teach standart French but I give this equivalent in Quebecois when I know it : i.e “déjeuner” (FR), “diner” (QC). People are okay with that…

    Accent isn’t a problem at all, since not everybody in Quebec has the same accent ! Not to mention all the immigrants… So I just speak clearly and never had a problem, students get used to it.

    Webmiztris : Yeah, a very bad idea to start with these bands… But hey, I learned a lot about drugs ! 😀

  7. My dad still hasn’t learned english and he’s been in the U.S for 20 years!

    I’m impressed that you know so many languages.

    I applaud it actually.

    I wish I could do more with language, but I haven’t really applied myself.

  8. ~*SilverNeurotic*~ on

    I would love to be able to learn just one new language, though I find learning languages very difficult…it does help that a lot of the time that you were learning, you were in that environment though. Sitting in a classroom only teaches you so much.

    By the way, I’ve been listening to Nirvana for 10-11 years and I still have trouble figuring out what the hell Kurt Cobain is going on about sometimes. Doesn’t help that he never really sang clearly either.

  9. English was born from the Germanic language. Most European language came from an ancient European language called Proto-Indo-European. The language is now extinct but considered the birthing of all the European languages.

    English is considered the world language of political negotiation. It is also the international language of science and medicine. There are over 75 Countries that claim English as the official language.

    I have spoken English all my living life and still have not mastered its subtle intricacies.

  10. Devil's Son on

    wow…good experience sharing..
    and i notice that u actually travelled quite a numbers of asian countries in the past….
    cool~~

  11. Deadpoolite on

    I dont speak english it is such a shame….hey wait a minute…did I just write that…IN ENGLISH…nonetheless. It is a miracle, it is a miracle I tell you (there is something supernatural about this blog maybe it is the layout it has to be…back down evil layout and creepy fonts, back down…)

    I am Greek by the way and a newbie to your blog, so a big hello to everyone!
    Originally I started learning english in my country when I was about 7-8 years old. Then I was bitten by a radioactive bug and decided to go to the UK and study in their higher education (of all the superpowers in the world…).

    I wouldnt say english is a hard language compared to some other languages, but I always treated it more like a learning game(even the terminology stuff for my science) so I cant really be objective about the whole thing.

    In contrast, it has been so long since I learnt french or actually used them, I always feel annoyed by that.I admit I have forgotten a lot of the vocabulary (oh well no Parisian love for me just yet I guess,lol)

    Judging from you blog entry text, your written english is very good and it shows that you have put a lot of work into it. Well done!

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