Parlez-vous français?

DO I SPEAK FRENCH, you ask? Oui, un petit, petit (petit) peu! 

We’ve returned to the Eastern Caribbean after 4 hurricane seasons in the Northeast and 1 in Georgia. Until we landed in the Spanish Virgins, we hadn’t realized how much we’d missed the weather, good vibes, great sailing, laid back lifestyle, swimming off the boat, fresh tropical fruit and fish, and the overall international island hopping you can get here in the Lesser Antilles.  While in the Spanish Virgins we brushed up on our Spanish. And oui, Madames et Messieurs, we’re now practicing our French, since we’ve spent extended periods of time in St. Martin and Martinique and realize we missed that challenge as well. Learning other languages just opens up access to whole new worlds

Speaking more than one language is a true gift and the more languages you can speak, the more gifted: both talented and blessed you are. We meet people from all around the world and it’s so special when you can speak, even just a little bit, to exchange pleasantries and show your admiration for being in a foreign land where your native language is not necessarily the default. Language is how we understand ourselves and the world we live in –make sense of it all-…, or at least make our attempts to.

I’m full of stories of the magic of being multilingual, but a few really stand out as I write. One, is a memory from our time in Grenada. Official language English, Grenadian English Creole and Grenadian French Creole are also spoken (independence from France in 1783, from Britain in 1974). I remember speaking Italian to the odd Neapolitan pizzaiolo, straight from Naples (my mother’s hometown) in Grenada for the first time. He worked at a marina restaurant we frequented and the pizza oven was right at the entrance to the place, so we had to pass him on the way in and out. He was not very friendly even though I would say hello and smile -in English- each time. My gesture was not authentically returned. I usually got a flat face and obligatory nod of recognition. But I’m not easily deterred. I taught high school. 

One day I had a burning question about the difference between making pizza dough vs. bread dough, as any good Italian-American foodie-wanna-be might. I wondered if he could make us real Italian bread in his beautifully stoked and cared for wood-burning stone oven. That’s when I learned how pithy yet profoundly insensitive I was in my choice of language and expected cultural norms. I assumed too much when addressing this Neapolitan pizzaiolo. As socio-linguistics will teach you, there’s no difference; language and culture are related and meaning is derived from studying their connection and shared properties. Language and the world we learn it in is how we see the world: through the lens of the language(s) we speak. The smaller the lens the more myopic our world.

Once I started barking away questions at mr. pizzaiolo, I learned he was very new to the island. And though I assumed he knew enough to exchange pleasantries in English, he did not at all. On top of it all, he was living alone: no family, no friends. As I rambled away my questions, now in Italian, about whether he could bake me bread in his pizza oven (and intricate inquiries of the art), a smile the size of Texas… or rather the Colosseum, beamed across his face as I rattled away. Meanwhile, I learned that the oven temperature for baking bread vs. preparing pizza is very different and when using a stone-domed wood fired stove, it’s a whole process. 

Mr. Pizzaiolo asked me how the hell I knew Italian so well (very kind) and we got each other’s brief life summaries. From then on, we chatted warmly whenever Paul and I went in and out; often, as it was on our daily route. And I never got the flat-faced affect again. Quite the contrary. The joy in seeing his mouth agape and then light up, as our conversation unfolded, brought me to reflect on my simple but fairly short-sighted assumption about the seemingly rude pizzaiolo. 

The second multilingual magical story takes place at a sushi joint Daniel and I went to once for lunch in downtown White Plains, NY. We decided to sit at the sushi bar and watch the two sushi chefs work their craft while we enjoyed the fruits of their labors. At one point, Daniel said, “they’re speaking Mandarin…” To my surprise, it was a sushi restaurant afterall, he pointed out the waitress standing close by and the sushi chef she was speaking to. Daniel recognized their accent as being specifically from Beijing and went on to explain how he could tell. He’s good. Nine months of studying in Beijing earned him the expertise. Soon, the waitress came back for another exchange/order with the sushi chef. She was standing not much more than a foot from Daniel when he turned to her in a soft voice and said something in Mandarin. 

Reward at the end of our bike ride, brought my snorkel and mask after Capt. Chris told me he saw starfish. I was not as lucky. But, about 30 years ago I saw my first seahorse off this beach.

I looked over as the waitress oh so slightly and slowly turned her head as her entire facial expression changed and she raised her arm and pointed to the goosebumps that had formed. Then a beaming smile the size of the Great Wall warmed her sturdy, all stunned, business-like demeanor. Soon after, she walked away seemingly embarrassed. I can only assume why she may have felt that way… if I am at all accurate. Funny how language can, ironically enough, have an incommunicable effect.

The “new” LaGuardia is da bomb.

The third and final story, I could seriously go on and on, was when I did a two-week Educators’ Tour of Japan sponsored annually and completely by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in appreciation to U.S. teachers who have worked with large groups of Japanese school children. When preparing for the trip, the Chamber of Commerce gave us a sort of cultural sensitivity training worksheet explaining how not to take too much food on your plate at buffets because Japanese were quite sensitive to wasteful habits when eating. Other 4-1-1 on the sheet taught you how to say: your name, occupation and where you were from. Gratefully I had learned how to say my name, hometown and occupation in Japanese, in order to introduce myself, as was suggested. I committed myself to studying the “intro packet,” thoughtfully provided, about 5 minutes before falling asleep each night in the days leading up to the trip. Not a terribly grueling commitment at all.

When we toured schools, there was always a moment of self-introduction where the 15 or so of us were invited to introduce ourselves, one-by-one. We toured a lot of schools. Quickly, it became quite evident to me why the cheat sheet was needed. It also became quite evident that I was the only one who had taken the time to memorize those three short phrases. We were all educators, many of us language teachers. 

One day, on our trip, after I had done what I was doing the entire time: introducing myself/ name/occupation, a colleague on the trip actually let me know how she felt about my thoughtfulness. As far as I was concerned, I thought I was being culturally sensitive/thoughtful, but apparently simultaneously disrupting another “culture,”  as I was soon informed.

This colleague said to me, “they want to learn English from us…” and walked away. And it wasn’t so much what she said as it was the tone she used. Also a powerful part of language, isn’t it. When you start to include the multi-lingual distinctions in tone, oh boy, watch out. I had a professor use the kazoo to demonstrate and impress upon us the importance of tone, in an intensive Mandarin class. It was a requirement of my grad program to study hours of languages you had absolutely no experience with. This class and the obscure Eastern European language (could have been Balarusian) I took left some of the greatest impressions in how it feels to be absolutely clueless and incapable of speaking nary a word. The experience does so much more than teach a language, it develops character. Helps you judge a bit more softly and walk that mile in another’s moccasins. This is also why I think international language experiences should be a requirement – just like basic math.

Even among internationally minded educators I was essentially told to stop introducing myself in Japanese – while in Japan. Ignorance avails itself, even among educators that are supposed to have heightened sensitivities to such differences. Seriously, even on the most basic level, no one did the feckin’ homework we were given. After working in both public/private schools, essentially as an advocate for Second Language Learners and their families, I have stories that’d make your head spin. Or at least they made mine spin and an early retirement that much more attractive. But don’t get me started. As Dr. Ervin Laszlo believes in his book Dawn of an Era of Well-Being, it takes unique navigating of uncharted waters to meet the challenge of building a better world (pun very intended).

I’m afraid I observe too many native English-speaking people often don’t even make an attempt to say please and thank you and good day in a native country’s language. Traveling we encounter Brits, Aussies, Americans, Canadians (the non-French speaking kind as well as the French-speaking and quite a few bilingual Canadians). On the educator’s trip, there were a woeful amount of people who made an effort to say good morning/good evening/thank you in Japanese. I found it painfully embarrassing. Never mind the culturally sensitive cheat-sheet epic failure of the group. 

Dolly Parton would agree, along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometimes.

Even in St. Lucia, where English is the official language, Patwa (which “mirrors a presence” of Spanish and English Creole effects according to Wikipedia), is spoken by 95% of the population… But even the exchanges in English are quite different. It took a while for Paul and me to get used to saying “night night” instead of “good evening”… I always feel like I should get a glass of warm milk, cookies and my blanky when saying “night night” to a grown person. Yet we forgo our instinctual “good evening” when here. Like the fist-bumping (sign language, imho) instead of handshaking. In St. Lucia it’s a fist-bump followed by the hand you bumped with, brought to the heart. I love this added gesture. In Martinique it seems that it’s just the fist-bump. European influence…? Hmmm… I’ll leave that for another time… For me the added touching of the heart is as meaningful as “namaste” (prayer hands and word) which, for me, has quite a bit of gravitas as a devout yogi of 23 years. 

Greetings in the Eastern Caribbean are very important. You greet the location as you enter, whether it be the post office, store, waiting room. You greet the people you pass on the streets. It’s not always that simple, however. In Martinique, there’s a distinction made between what time of day you say bon jour (good morning), vs. bonne journée (good day) vs. bonsoir (good evening). And I just learned that those native to Martinique begin saying “bon soir” after 1:00 in the afternoon vs. the European French speakers who start at 4/5 pm. Added confusion. Oy vey (that’s authentic NYKer). 

We were so confused initially, we just asked a store clerk. But once we understood, the pattern was terribly obvious. It just took a little mindfulness, attention and caring and poof… I mean, voilá! We were soon exchanging pleasantries or at least attempting to, at the right times of the day. And mindfulness seems to have quite a connection to language learning in terms of building your brain capacity as well. Check out this article on mindfulnessbox. Love the bit about the connection between the brain’s gray matter and meditation: “How can mindfulness and language learning go hand in hand? Many of the obstacles to language learning are self-imposed: self-doubt, self-judgment, ego. Mindfulness practices like self-compassion, gratitude, and nonjudgment can help you overcome these obstacles and make quicker progress towards learning… Even more interesting is meditation, and its capacity to change the brain, maintain gray matter, and improve memory and focus.”

I’ve always had a deep passion for language. From my linguistic studies I remember a few things. The neuroscience was particularly fascinating to me… like, if you’re raised bilingually you learn the two languages in the same part of the brain. That’s why it takes longer to get to the production stage. The neuro and socio/social linguistic implications are terribly fascinating to me and I won’t bore you with it all, but if you’re interested, I’ve made some links throughout. I try to do that when I mention stuff in this blog that might inspire further inquiry. It’s the teacher in me… and it’s a bit of an insatiable impulse I’m afraid. I get a little crazy with my live links, but boy do I have fun doing it. As my friend Lisa tells me, “it’s your gift to the world…” and I really appreciate that perspective. I’ve always respected Lisa’s brilliant mind and sensitive heart.

I imagine there are more neurolinguistic complexities involved in being raised to speak more than two languages as well… just don’t remember specifically. I do specifically remember when my youngest, Daniel, didn’t speak in complete sentences for quite a while. He was being raised bi-lingually. Then at 2, tri-lingually, which seemed to add to the delay. And being the language enthusiast that I am, I would read to him in a fourth, French, with French children’s books. Mais bien sûr…, but of course.

In fact, I still remember parts of one book by heart… ‘Que mange les animaux de la ferme…, Le petit lapin mange des carottes…’ Speaking of carrots, the carrots we get in the Caribbean are often incredibly sweet, providing an altogether different carrot experience over the usual bitter or bland ones in the U.S., must say. I, like the petit lapin, love carrots, i.e. breakfast, lunch, dinner.

As a linguist, educator, and avid carrot eater, I believe international exchanges should be required in public school education to ensure a basic level of bilingualism, which if done well is biculturalism. Or have I mentioned that 10 times already? Slamming carrot gavel…

I see more and more “dual language” programs popping up. White Plains Public Schools offers one. A dear friend/colleague, Sarafina, enrolled her two children. Her son Gabe is still one of three native English speakers that has participated through to high school. So by no means is it a norm… yet, I say, yet… And even then, these sorts of programs don’t require an exchange-the truest of ways to learn, if you don’t have bilingual parents and teachers throughout your life. It’s about time we see bilingual education as an asset not a liability. Bilinguals experience the world differently, simple expressions can be “worth a thousand words…”  The languages you speak affect all the senses: what you look at and what you see, what you hear and what you understand, what you feel. And funny enough grows profoundly ineffable from there, the more languages you learn, in my experience.

And though Daniel did start speaking a little later than I expected, boom, full syntax rolled off his tongue when he did decide he was ready. It was pretty magical and incommunicable, much like many moments of a child’s language acquisition. But nothing like hearing the first giggle. Now that… I still remember feeling as if the skies parted and I heard what angels must sound like. Besides the mama, goohs and gaahhs, that was his “first word.”

We’ve needed to visit doctors and police stations in French-speaking islands and a dentist in a Spanish-speaking island. Interesting, very interesting…

One particularly (now) disturbing fact I remember learning about language acquisition studies is how critical the written (pen/pencil and paper (don’t gag)) is in development, i.e. language development in the brain. I’m curious to know if this is still being taught or simply left by the wayside… new studies finding that scrolling touch screens have the same developmental effect, perhaps…? I’ll finish crying after I write the blog.

When you learn a second language as an adult, it’s a little tougher because of neuroplasticity and the new language is now learned in another part of the brain. For me, I feel like a different person when I have the pleasure of speaking another language that’s not my native English. This is our second rodeo in the Eastern Caribbean, it is the French influence that has inspired both of us to approach this language learning endeavor as adults more seriously. 

Seems like an imbalance in the universe when you can have Caribbean waters, weather and French food.

When younger I learned the French happy birthday – “Bon anniversaire, nos vœux les plus sincères…” version and still know it by heart, but French is just now starting to not completely elude my comprehension. Language matters not just in terms of international communications, but even in our own domestic affairs, community exchanges, and particularly in our interpersonal relationships. There’s Chapman’s “5 love languages”, whose theory I actually learned about from a dear friend Sarah’s 12-year-old daughter (both mom & daughter featured in past blogs). Thanks Naomi. We humans can be very particular… from the name that we prefer to be called to the names we should call others. I truly dislike being called “Anna”… it was used to tease me as a child. Yet I’ll tell a barista that’s the name to call when my latte is done. It’s just easier. I don’t mind Anna Maria (usually in Latin language countries), Am (lazy college friends-love them), Annie (thanks Coach Carol), Ami (Meaghan, beloved daughter-in-law)… they were all nicknames made with love. Don’t mind those at all.

Difficult enough following pilates instructions in English. In French, a whole new exercise.

When we first came to the French speaking Caribbean, Paul thought I’d be the one to help communicate since I had my Italian and a bit of Spanish. But alas one day when I met him in the local eatery, one of our first days having lunch out, as I approached the table where he was already seated and waiting for me to join him, he waved his hand to the waitress and said, “une caraf d’ eau et deux verres s’il vous plait…”

HUH?! Who is this person and please return Paul immediately, preferably unharmed. Actually, I burst with pride hearing how Paul had made the effort and stepped out of his comfort zone. He had to because I was not exactly any help. French for me is quite a challenge. In Italian and Spanish, I know how to read and can teach myself. French, not so much. Even with help from apps on my phone and my dear friend Matt (professor and translator extraordinaire). For the most part, French is a phonetically bankrupt language, every beautiful syllable of it. It’s simply a phonetic mystery to me. With French, I really struggle. I never learned to formally read it, which makes it especially difficult. However, I am getting to the point where I can exchange pleasantries while shopping in the supermarket, boutiques (très jolie, merci)…. bakery… restaurants. Paul and I both know enough to exchange pleasantries at this point. We also have the added knowledge not to assume the people we’re surrounded by have the same language and interpretations of the world as we. Translation app has been a friend. 

But it’s taken some time. Unlike five years ago when I asked for what I thought was two bottles of water and in reply was asked if I wanted salt and pepper with that. I had somehow ordered eggs instead. This time when I asked for water to wash off my slime-line gloves at the docks (rubber work gloves to pick op slimy dock lines) I was asked where our boat’s water tank was…! THAT’s improvement as far as I’m concerned. No we didn’t need our water tank filled, we have a water maker for that, but I did need my gloves rinsed. So I mimed and used the petit pèu I knew and got a lovely man working the docks to turn on the hose and rinse my gloves. And as a woman who witnessed the whole scene at the fuel dock kindly stated as we pulled away, departing for St. Lucia and points south for hurricane season, slimed gloves successfully rinsed, “Your intention to speak French is a good one and you’ll find you can get pretty far with a simple “merci beaucoup…”” Which she said to me in perfect English with a thick, full, musical French accent, I’d like to add. We really do get “pretty far.” So until next season, merci beaucoup x10, aurevoir, adieu, et à  toute à l’heure.

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4 responses to “Parlez-vous français?”

  1. Qui, je parle bien le français. Quand j’étais à l’âge de 16 ans, j’ai vécu pendant un mois avec une famille française sur la côte sud de la France. la famille avait trois filles de 13, 15 et 17 ans. J’ai étudié dur et mon caractère s’est formé. puis j’ai navigué et fait plusieurs fois la côte atlantique française, fabuleux ..

    • What a gift indeed, Stuart. I always enjoyed your beautiful French accent when I had the pleasure of hearing you speak… even if it was just to order a Leffe at Kokoarum 🙂

  2. Un grand merci pour le lien vers mon site! Cet article de blog était super. J’adore lire vos voyages et vos aventures à voile. La nourriture, les gens, la culture, les langues… j’aimerais pouvoir être là!

    • Merci pour votre soutien et pour la lecture du blog. Cela signifie tellement pour nous lorsque nos proches prennent le temps de lire et de commenter. (How’d my translation app do? 😉 )

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