Language is the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Hi everyone –
it’s been a week since I started going to the language school. The language school I am going to is called Language Studies International (LSI). They’re a global company – so they’re in the US, Europe, and Asia. I picked this school because while researching for which language school to go to – they’re relatively cheaper than other options, and they’re also smaller in size, which works for me in this case.
When I was thinking about taking this sabbatical – London actually crossed my mind. But I ended up with Paris because I knew that the language barrier would be something of a challenge for me – and it is what I need right now. I need to feel challenged. I want to learn new things. I also picked Paris because I have ‘some’ knowledge of the language since I took 2 years of French in high school back in Indonesia, and a couple of years in college. So I figured it would not be totally like taking a complete new language. Now while I do not expect to speak French fluently at the end of this trip, the language barrier is something that would keep me outside of my comfort zone while I am here. And as uncomfortable as it has been – it’s good for me. It’s humbling.
The answer is always the “D”
New students start every Mondays, and the first thing they asked us to do was to take the placement test. Mostly multiple choices, then at the end you have to write a little bit about yourself. First page – was more grammar – and I amazingly was able to remember some basic things from what I was taught in high school, but then the questions got harder and harder – so I started skipping the questions and marked them so I could go back and think a little bit more. But of course even when I went back to those questions, it’s not like in the last half hour I suddenly knew French – so …. when I was looking at my other answers… I noticed that up to that point, I only picked a, b and c…. there was no ‘d’ at all. So – I just decided that – the answers to the questions I didn’t know were all “Ds” 🙂
The other test is oral test – so one of the professors called us one by one, and she asked us basic questions like our name, from which country, how long we’re staying, etc. Then of course as she started asking more things – I had to keep repeating “Je ne comprend pas” (I don’t understand).
Well, not surprisingly, they put me in the beginner class.
“You’ve got that James Dean, daydream, look in your eyes….”
Meanwhile, I saw one of the kids who was in the placement test with me – I don’t know his name, he’s from some where in South America – he’s probably 17-18 years old – he was all cool with his jacket and sunglasses he wore in the class, beautiful charming smile, and during the orientation – he was speaking French quite fluently (I mean, the instructor understood him). He was so confident, such bravado for such a young person.
He got into the intermediate level 🙂
I mentioned him because – I remember being his age – and in Santa Barbara doing what I am doing right now, except at the time I was there to learn English. I too went to a language school, and just like this kid, I too had the same confidence and bravado when I was there. Up until that time – the only English lessons I had was about 5 hours a week for the past 5 years – and we didn’t speak English in Indonesia. But I think there’s something about youth – the confidence, the willingness to take risks, the ability to not be afraid to make mistakes – I just went for it. I didn’t care at the time about whether or not the other person would understand what I was saying. I figured I knew enough about the language that I could form some sentences w/ the words I knew. And I did. And they did understand me.
I was secretly envious of this kid since I realized that as I got older – taking risks is not as easy as when you were young. Perhaps because when you were young, you were just fearless and you didn’t think you’ve got a lot to lose. As an adult, there’s always that reservation of – not wanting to look like a fool. And we tend to think that we’ve got something to lose (like your dignity!). I hope I’d get over that and go for it anyway in the course of my stay here.
And that kid is SO cool, that the first thing I thought of when I saw him and then especially when he started talking, was the Taylor Swift’s song “Style”. I really just wanted to start singing ….. “You’ve got that James Dean, daydream, look in your eyes”… He’s going to be a heartbreaker this one 🙂
“Do you understand what I am saying?!”
I mentioned that being in a place where you don’t speak the language – is very humbling. It’s made realize also how much I’ve taken the ability to communicate in Indonesian and English, for granted. I’ve now spoken English regularly for about 22 years, and I guess I just don’t even think about the fact that it’s “another” language to me technically (though my friends know that whenever I misunderstand something, I’d always blame ESL as my excuse :)). I don’t even really think that “oh I have to speak English.” I just do it.
And now being here in France … I realize how amusing, intimidating, and humbling it could get when you don’t know how to articulate even the simplest thing.
- I’ll start with the “amusing” part – so in my beginner class – there are nine people this week (it’ll change weekly as students leave and new students coming). There were three of us who started on the same Monday, and the rest have been in the class for 2-4 weeks. You could take a minimum of one week to … two weeks, three weeks, one month, one year. In the class this week – the students are from Brazil, Chad, Denmark, Sweden, Mexico, China, and US / Indonesia (me). The rule in the class is that you can’t speak English and you can’t look at a dictionary. So when you don’t understand something and you ask a question – the professor answers the question in French. So as you could imagine – there are many times when we all would just look at each other with this confused look on our faces and I swear when I see ‘this look’, it’s as if – telepathically, that person is trying to say “WTF?!!” This also happens to our professor of course since many times we have no idea what we’re saying. For us – the students – we just blurt out words that we think “sound” French, but who the fuck knows right? So everyday in class – you’ll recognize that “WTF?!” look. And the funny part is – usually in the end, we’d look at each other and smile while nodding our heads as if saying “OK, I THINK I understand what you’re trying to say, but I have no idea how to respond to you in French, so I’m going to just give you a smile and move on!” 🙂
- The intimidating part – y’all know I am not a shy person 🙂 But not being able to communicate or articulate my thoughts is very intimidating. I’ve found myself being – ‘shy’ – or perhaps it’s more ‘tentative’ than ‘shy’. It goes back to what I said about how as an adult, I think we’re more afraid to appear like a fool. I remember when I came to the US at 18, I seriously didn’t care. I talked to EVERYBODY. EVERYBODY. I didn’t know whether or not they’d understand what I was saying, but I talked to them anyway. Here -at this time in my life – because I am not always confident about the language, sometimes I ended up changing my mind about asking a question. So this week I’ve been forcing myself to just go back to my “who the fuck cares?!” mantra. I mean, after all, at worst – most people would then speak English to you. But I have to admit this feeling of ‘shyness’ is definitely a new experience for me. Guess there’s always first time for everything.
- The humbling part – I’m quite expressive when I speak Indonesian and English. I feel confident about my communication skills for the most part that I think sometimes I don’t always have patience or empathy towards people who don’t communicate well. It’s made me think about little kids also…. how frustrating it must be for them – the ones who don’t really know how to talk yet. This week – I am humbled by the empathy and patiences my professor and fellow students showed. While before, if I don’t understand what someone’s trying to say, I’d sometimes would cut the other person and “interpret” and articulate their thoughts to them…. I learned this week that – instead of trying to finish their thoughts, I should encourage them to continue what they were saying by asking more questions, clarifying and verifying if I do understand what they’re saying (granted at this point, we don’t always get it! But hopefully it’ll get better 🙂 ).
All and all – I have to say I feel very fortunate to have had this opportunity to challenge myself this way. There’s a website called Conversation Exchange, where people post their profiles and what kind of conversation exchange partners they are looking for. Most of them want to practice English in exchange to helping you out with your French. I’ve gotten several responses to which I am going to respond, though – I have to say – a couple of the responses … I’m not sure what kind of “conversation exchange” they’re looking for since they’re rather … hmm, forward 🙂 Oh well, you win some, you lose some 🙂
Thanks again for stopping by! Till next time.
Some pictures from today’s class (we have to do role playing – actually, more like a charade), it was quite fun!