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!”