28 November 2017

I'm Braver speaking French

Does that seem strange to you?

It did to me too, at first.

But it is something I'm noticing to be true, beyond any shadow of a doubt.

Apparently I'm also not the only person who's made this discovery.

What do I mean? Here's one example:

I was in a Tim Hortons parking lot (I often meet English language students there). The spaces are a little on the small side to begin with and once the snow falls and begins to be shoved, shoveled, blown and piled, the available space decreases. I parked my larger than average vehicle, carefully and very clearly in between the yellow lines demarking my space. Yet it was impossible to exit the car without my door touching the door of the vehicle beside me. I was scrupulously attentive - I did not want my black door to leave a trace on the white one beside me. Unbeknownst to me, however, the driver of that white car was watching - also attentively. And he wasn't happy when he saw the contact. He started hollering across the parking lot. It was in French and a good portion of it I did not understand, but there was no doubt about the gist: he was unhappy and he wasn't concerned about politeness. 
Normally I'd just ignore a monsieur like him and simply walk into the restaurant. I'm not one for this sort of confrontation if I can avoid it... But I didn't avoid. 
Instead, I walked up to him and said something along these lines, in French: "Sir, because you are an older gentleman, I'm going to speak to you respectfully. However, your age does not give you the right to impolitely scream at me from across the parking lot. I understand that you were concerned about your vehicle, however I was very careful and if you come with me, you will see there are no marks on your car." He walked over, admitted that there were no marks and then stomped off. (By the way, when we very occasionally cross paths at this same Tim Hortons, he now smiles and says "Bonjour..." for what that's worth.)

Never in a million years would I have done the same thing with a stranger in an English speaking environment. 

Why this difference?

I don't know what the professional consensus is for those who study this phenomenon; the article linked to above says that it probably has more to do with a different cultural context and less with the actual language context. But, for what it is worth, here are what I think might be at least a few of my reasons.

  • I learned to speak French as an adult, with more maturity, greater confidence and a better awareness of who I am and why I'm here. Though I do still care (a lot), I am not as enslaved to what others think as I was when younger; I'm significantly more concerned about what God thinks.
  • I learned to speak French after becoming a mother. I can't think of any other experience God has gifted me that consistently offers me opportunities to model humility, teachability, perseverance, gentleness and a heart of service - even when all I really want to do is turn off the lights, crawl under the covers (or desk... depends on where I am) and hide from the world.
  • Learning to speak another language requires losing face. The controlled, refined and very perfectionist image of me that I want to be and desire to present to the rest of the world usually ends up looking undignified, incompetent and just plain and stupid. 
This year, I'm again volunteering at the school my kids attend and working more in French than I ever have before. I regularly sound like an idiot, am at a complete loss for words, have to ask people to repeat themselves or have to repeat myself, am corrected by giggling five and six year olds, and say things that are culturally stupid because I've translated (more or less) from English 
 Perhaps most discouraging and frustrating of all are those misunderstandings that pop up because my American-English-brained-way of trying to communicate something apparently doesn't come across the same way to a Quebec-French-brained-way of understanding. Helping students learn - a domain in which I've mostly excelled - requires a lot of work in my second language. It is exhausting. Oh yeah, did I also mention that at some point during the day, my head just starts to hurt. A lot.  
Once you get used to regularly eating crow, well... you get used to it and it isn't as hard to do again. However, that doesn't mean it has suddenly become palatable. Distasteful? Probably until the day I die.

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Now, I don't want to make it sound all miserable. I was sitting at a ladies' breakfast recently - listening and participating in conversations with some precious women from our church (in French of course) - and I was overwhelmed by amazed gratefulness, because there I was, enjoying understanding and speaking a language that was not my mother tongue. 

But I also don't want you to think that just because it has been 17 years, it has become effortless and easy...

And perhaps challenge you to remember that the next time you run across someone who's first language is not English, or who's home culture is not your own.

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