John Davis: Watch Your Language!

Honors Students away from campus for study abroad, co-ops, or internships are encouraged to write about their experiences to share them with the Honors community. John Davis ’16 studied abroad in Grenoble, France for three months in Fall 2014 with Academic Programs International (API). Below are John’s thoughts on negotiating the language barrier.

– By John Davis ’16

Y’all…French is hard. I like the language well enough, but it’s a dance with all sorts of spins, dips, and weaves, but like a dance, when one speaks it effectively it can be breathtakingly beautiful. I suppose it was always likely, but nonetheless I’ve been very surprised by how much I’ve learned about English since deciding to study French.  The more I learn French, the more I realize that English is like a gangster language with built-in ambiguity and lack of complexity; like the word “like”. Like what the heck, English?  For your literary pleasure, reread this paragraph, notice all the times that word was used, and imagine trying to explain that word to a non-English-speaker. I have!

Therefore you can imagine, coming to France with my native Oldspeak and the fact that I stumble over words when I’m not speaking a foreign language, these past few weeks have been more or less a linguistic nightmare! It all started on the flight to France. As is typical, the flight attendant came through the cabin to serve complementary drinks to everyone. I just wanted some water, and I knew the word (the word for water in French is eau).  Forget English! I was going to be French!

This being my first real French encounter, I imagined myself flawlessly asking for a cup of water while straightening my pencil mustache, turning to the guy on my right to say, “the service isn’t what it used to be,” with nothing but grunts and eyebrows, and then going on strike because of my dissatisfaction. I would fit right in to this country! But as soon as I hit the first note in that stupid three-letter-word, I knew I was in trouble. Even though the word has almost every vowel except for “o”, it is pronounced exactly like the letter “o” (like H2eau…get it?). But there I am in the middle seat of the airplane with at least three pairs of eyes and who knows how many pairs of ears trained on me, and I am asking for some “eee-ah-ooo” like I’m speaking whale with Dory! The flight attendant gave me a beer and walked away.

John (top left) with his classmates enjoying a picnic in Grenoble, France
John (top left) with his classmates enjoying a picnic in Grenoble, France

Another classic French error is mistaking the word “hunger” for“hungry”. There is no French word that means “hungry”. When you want to say that you’re hungry, you say J’ai faim (I have hunger). If you’re really hungry, you can say J’ai beaucoup de faim! (I have lots of hunger). Now this nuance wouldn’t be so bad if the word faim (hunger) wasn’t so close in pronunciation to the word femme (woman). More often than I want to admit, I have caught myself sitting down at a restaurant and happily announcing to the waiter, “I have woman!” or even worse, “I have lots of women!”

These are bad, but this next one takes the bread…well, I guess there’s no bread so let them eat cake (allow yourself a pause to let that joke sink in). In class, we have been talking about l’amour (love) and all the vocabulary that goes with it. As one of only two male students in the class, I unwittingly found myself being asked all sorts of love-related questions from the host of women. There was one time, however, when the teacher asked if I had a question for the girls in the class (so I guess I really do have lots of women). In fact I did have a question! I wanted to know about French kissing! Not that I had any personal expertise in the subject (Mom, this is true!), I just think it’s just one of those trademarked “French” things that has been Americanized, and I wanted to see what real French people thought about it. It is sort of like asking a Mexican person what he/she thinks about Tex Mex. So I turn to a girl across the room and innocently ask her, “How long do people typically kiss in France?” This question was met by giggles from some students and gasps from other students. I desperately look over to my teacher to find her head cocked slightly to one side like a puppy trying to figure out which hand the toy is in. She wearing an expression somewhere between pity and disgust.

In my mind, I quickly reviewed the words I had just said aloud. To my horror, the translation came back as “How long should we typically kiss in France?” Gulp! uhhh…Tex Mex anyone? Needless to say, the rest of class that day was a bit awkward. But to my credit, after a brief pause she replied with “two to three minutes.” Ooo la la!

John with his French host family
John with his French host family

Having to speak a foreign language has reawakened in me what I believe to be two fundamental desires of all people: to understand and to be understood. If I’ve learned anything through my mistakes in language, it’s that understanding is DIFFICULT! It takes patience, practice, lots of mistakes, and it would be much easier to give up and hide behind your own cultural awareness. But like the dance with its spins and weaves, the end result of understanding is always beautiful. Through understanding, you discover new and wondrous things, you repair broken relationships, and you can influence completely different cultures to work together for a common goal and a better world! Whether it’s learning to ask for a cup of water in another language or learning to see social issues from a different perspective, so much can be achieved if people everywhere would lay down their pitchforks and choose to understand each other. Take it from one who has had a lot of practice lately, it’s worth the effort.

To learn more about options for studying abroad at Texas A&M, visit http://studyabroad.tamu.edu/.

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