Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In Search of Lost Time: My Silence of the Lamb

Remember that part about when I said that living abroad was like Mercury retrograde all the time? You knew where you wanted the conversation to go, and it usually got there, but perhaps not in the manner you would have chosen.

Part of that is ego, and the other part is high expectations. You want to be able to express yourself as well in your second language as you can in your native language. Let me tell you...that's not happening unless you are a very rare breed of person who is incredibly gifted for languages. While I have seen one or two, the rest of us have to get along with sometimes substituting less complex ideas, or for vocabulary we don't know, when trying to make ourselves understood. 

But then again, sometimes THAT doesn't work, either.

In one stunning example, one of my classmates from Nantes woke up after her first night in her new home and her French family asked her how she had slept. We're not talking about nuclear arms treaties, or convincing someone not to jump off a bridge, or even getting on the wrong train. Just "How did you sleep?" I had no idea how perilous that situation could be. But I found out.

My friend had to think for a moment. There had been a mosquito in her room, and she had been bitten several times. The problem was that she couldn't come up with the French word for "mosquito", which incidentally is
la moustique. So she racked her brain and thought, "Well, I'll just use the word for 'fly' and go from there." Excellent idea in theory, but impossible to execute; she couldn't remember the word for "fly" in French, either (la mouche). So she punted and said:

"Il y avait un mouton dans ma chambre." [There was a sheep in my room.]

On paper it makes a weird sort of sense. Both of the words she had been looking for began with mou- so likely it popped into her head and she just went with it.

At that point, her French family confirms, "Un mouton?" [A sheep?]

I've seen this a lot in dual-language situations. The listener confirms that they have correctly understood, and for the foreign language speaker it gives us the opportunity to see the body language, expression, etc., of the listener so we can re-consider what we've already said. [In one case, for me at was actually native speakers confirming that I was being as vulgar as I had hoped to be, while at the same time scolding me for speaking that way. But that was me; I was told on one occasion in Nantes that I had "a very varied vocabulary", which is the polite way of saying "You got a dirty mouth." But I digress.]

My classmate didn't realize her error and pressed on:

“Oui, et il m’a piqué trois fois!” [Yes, and it bit me three times!]

I can only imagine what her French family was thinking at this point. I don't know if they managed to stifle their laughter, but going for the teachable moment, they sat her down at a dry erase board while they drew and insect and marked it "la moustique", and drew a sheep and labeled it "le mouton". She finally got the point; I'll bet she never forgot those words again.

Of course, she swore me to silence on the story, but this one is too good not to share. I lost touch with her after Nantes, but if I was in touch with her today, I'd have to send her an email that said, "Well, [name], have the lambs stopped screaming?" :)

This story reminds me that even the most simple of linguistic interactions can be valuable, and as I start prepping in earnest for Nantes I'm going over some vocabulary in my head to make sure I'm going to the train station this time, and not off to a non-existent war. At least Mercury retrograde will be well and truly OVER by the time I get over there. I don't need his "assistance" in clouding my meaning.

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