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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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