Experiences Learning my Second Language

Hindi was not the first non-English language I tried to learn. Not long after we moved to Canada I really was done with visiting the US (and to be honest, I wouldn’t be heartbroken if I were never sent there again – sorry, fellow Americans) but with a US passport I was a great candidate for my company to send to the states as I don’t need a visa to work there – I just show up. I thought perhaps if I learned to speak French I could be sent to work on projects in our Quebec office.  I started working with a tutor in Toronto.

Surprisingly it was much harder to find opportunities to practice French in Toronto than Hindi. There are almost twice as many Urdu speakers in Toronto as French speakers.  But I made do – though I really didn’t practice like I have been with Hindi. So I never got that good at it. I could speak passably but definitely not work-level French.  Despite that, my technical knowledge was in need in 2008 and I was sent to Quebec City for 8 months despite my poor French. Once I got there, I made a deal with myself: When I left my hotel I would speak French to French speakers. It wasn’t always easy and I made lots of embarrassing mistakes.  And so I felt judged most of the first few weeks there. My advice, though, to second language learners is to keep at it. Make lots of mistakes and get good at them. Eventually you get desensitized.  When I first got there I would obsess about mistakes for a long time, often cringing hours or days later when I remembered, for example, pronouncing the word for ticket (“Billet”) as “Bill-let” instead of “Biyay” and the confused look on the clerk’s face until I took out a ticket and showed her and she corrected me. A few months later most of that had disappeared and I just gave myself credit for trying and realizing how much progress I’d made.

The first few days, though, were particularly difficult, probably because of the synergy of the various things that all happened at the same time.

After spending the better part of the day in video chat with Sage and Daegan on a Saturday I finally went out to do a few errands, get some groceries and spend some time out in what looked to be a gorgeous day despite the -20C temperatures. I wandered over to a Lebanese restaurant where I mispronounced “Pois chiches” and was corrected (and never forgot) and then to the health food store and picked up a few things and where the clerk had to ask me “Vieullez une sac?” (Do you want a bag?) several times before giving up and switching to English. Finally, I headed over to a nearby bakery that made the best bread. I could eat their whole wheat miche loaves just as – no butter, just sliced. But their walnut-raisin bread was to die for.  You can smell the deliciousness all up and down Rue St. Jean. On this day, I walked in the door and my glasses instantly fogged over. As usual, I took them off and used my shirttail to defog them. NOT as usual, the frames snapped in my hand. I think the plastic must have become extremely brittle in the cold because it felt as easy as snapping a potato chip.

So there I was, in a city where I mostly don’t speak the language, glasses in pieces in my hands and a busy work week ahead. Were I a pessimist I would have been losing it by then. Fortunately, as most people will attest, I am the eternal optimist and considered it the beginning of another adventure. The first part of the adventure involved walking the 3 doors down to the lunetterie (See? A pessimist notices the broken glasses, optimist notices the optometrist 3 doors down!) where I showed the clerk my glasses and explained in a mixture of French and English what had happened. Okay, that’s not entirely true. When I am stressed or wanting to talk about something important that I don’t want to screw up, I start in English – bad habit, I know, but I’m working on it. However, the clerk’s English was only slightly better than my French and so it appeared, I would have another opportunity to practice my French in ways I never expected. This time made a little more difficult by the fact that (you’ll think I’m strange but bear with me) I can’t think as well with my glasses off.  Among the new words I learned in that experience was ‘scotch’ which was the tape that was used to repair my glasses. If all goes well I’ll have my new glasses on Friday. In the meantime I’m treating the current ones like a faberge egg lest they fall apart again.

Basse Ville

The next was a better day though I spent much of it again with Sage and Daegan. Finally, in the afternoon I went back out, risking breaking the other side of my glasses and went back to the health food store for a few things and then wandered throughout the old city ending up in the Basse Ville, the lower part of the city which is somewhat touristy but is also mostly car-free (as you can see, many of the streets are just too narrow for cars). I continued further down until I reached the St. Lawrence river itself. While it was still well below freezing, it was not completely iced over because the ferry that runs between Quebec and Lévis (across the river) still runs. As a result, there was still a great deal of ice flowing down the river. It was absolutely mesmerizing and made me dizzy if I watched it too long. Still, my timing was good as I arrived just in time to catch the last of the sunset.

After a quick dinner I headed back to the room where Daegan, Sage, and I watched another episode of Red Dwarf together before heading off to bed. Looking back at this from almost ten years later, I can see how much connecting with them made my transition easier. Not speaking the language of everyone around me made things feel very lonely. I could connect with people on a very low level on a handful of subjects that I knew enough words to talk about but if I didn’t know the right words I was as good as mute. So most of my life was spent in my head. It was a great way to learn the language as there was lots of motivation. And it worked, by the time I left there I could have conversations about politics and daily life with cab drivers. But at first, it was hard talking with a degree of competence and confidence that made me feel so far from my English speaking self I didn’t even feel like myself.  So talking to my family was so important and I did it for literally hours every day.

St. Lawrence Sunset

Otherwise work went fairly well though the not knowing the language that well does a number on my self image. I’d been in my industry  for almost 20 years and was used to being the one “in the know” and even though I still was, I was mostly unable to communicate it. Lunch was particularly difficult as I was pretty much unable to follow the conversations going on there. Still, I picked up bits and pieces here and there and more did come with time. Mostly, though, it was rather lonely to be surrounded by people but to be mostly unable to communicate.

During that time, I became very aware of how much one’s outward appearance, and particularly one’s ability to communicate, shapes peoples’ impressions of you. Maybe aware is not really the correct word as I really don’t know what others are thinking. But to the greatest extent since I was a teenager, I found myself worrying about peoples’ impressions. I felt like I sounded like an idiot and then with my glasses being taped together I felt I looked like one as well.  I found it extremely frustrating and depressing. But always the optimist, even in the midst of feeling all that, part of me saw it as an opportunity. A lesson, if you will, in not taking myself so damned seriously, and to be a bit more humble. An opportunity, also, to empathize with people who aren’t able to communicate with me as well in my language.

After 8 months I learned quite a lot of French. I was still not great at it but my vocabulary had grown hugely. Since then my vocabulary has nearly disappeared. On the other hand, the ability to be patient with myself and not take myself so seriously. When I was in India I made countless mistakes and was laughed at a lot. I have forgotten all but two mistakes. One was when I learned how to properly say “for me” – (meri liye) instead of making the mistake I made many times over in Toronto (mujhe ke liye). An auto driver laughed and corrected me and the moment, and the vocabulary stuck with me. Not because I was embarrassed or horrified but just because of the combination of riding down the road in Delhi, the sights, sounds, and smells all made it memorable and I will never make that mistake again.  The other is a bit more embarrassing.  One day when my Hindi teacher had taken his last trip to the UK a few years back I had a substitute – a woman about my age – for a few weeks.  On this day we were translating a few sentences from English in to Hindi and we came to this sentence:

“The bird is in the nest”

which should be:

“Chidiya ghosle men hai.”

but which I confidently belted out as:

“Ch**iya ghosle men hai.” – substituting a fairly common but also fairy dirty word for an innocent little bird. Damn my coworkers for teaching me words I shouldn’t be saying. (And just why are those words so much more memorable than the more innocent ones).

But instead of this being memorable because I was embarrassed or I felt stupid. It’s most memorable for the fact that my very dignified teacher must have seen I was truly trying and had no idea what I was saying and so didn’t register that it had happened at all. She maintained her composure completely.

Now I just need to have even more opportunities to practice. Clearly I need my company to send me to India for a few months.  A man can dream, right?

6 thoughts on “Experiences Learning my Second Language

    1. Thanks. I like Spanish but know very few words in that. I did surprise Sage once, though, when we went to a Mexican restaurant in Toronto where there was no menu and the waitress only spoke Spanish. She told us the dishes they had available in Spanish and then I ordered in Spanish. Sage didn’t know I knew a few words of Spanish. She was completely shocked. And I always learn the words relating to food first! Had she gone on to ask any questions or tell me how her day was going, I would have been unlikely to understand anything beyond that. It was a funny moment, though.

  1. Hahah it’s hard for me to think without my glasses too. French is a hard language to learn, I took 3yrs in HS and barely remember a thing! I don’t blame you for trying to get out of coming to America though!

    1. One of the hardest things about French for me was not understanding where one word ended and the other started. Other languages I’ve studied are easier to parse that way. I was talking to a friend of mine who is a native Arabic speaker that started learning English about a year ago. That was his experience as well. Apparently we also do that in English so “How are you doing”, for example, comes out sounding to a new learner of English as “howyadoin”.

      I guess I could’ve been more positive about visiting the states :-). Really, I love where I live and am really curious about other countries (and the few others I’ve visited I really liked). And so, maybe an equally accurate but positive thing to say is that I’m in a committed relationship with a new country but also want to start seeing other countries. We’ve just grown apart. It’s not you, USA, it’s me…

      1. Languages are so interesting in how they differ! It’s okay–I’d rather travel the world than the boring USA, too and I prob haven’t even been to half the states you have.

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