The move from Oklahoma to the Saguenay region of Québec brought with it a lot of changes. The biggest challenge has been the language barrier (well, there’s also the long winter, but that’s another blog post, as we’ve made it to November this year without snow). It was my first experience dealing in any real way with a language barrier.
When I arrived in July of 2012, I basically spoke no French. I knew my alphabet, the numbers one through ten, a few words (mostly nouns like apple, bike, boy, girl, husband), and I could say, “I don’t understand.” That was my only complete sentence. I had learned it in Mexico, in 2010, from the man I had just started to suspect I loved, the man I would later marry and follow to Québec. It took him a full week to teach me that one short sentence.
I started taking French classes in September of 2012. I took some limited (but still helpful and appreciated) courses available to spouses of military members, then a more intensive course for military members, and I studied on my own using Rosetta Stone (not a huge fan), duolingo.com, and reading children’s books in French. In November of 2013, I was fortunate to gain admission to a full-time French course for immigrants. Six months of full-time classes helped me make amazing progress. I cannot speak highly enough of the teachers and administrators at the Centre linguistique at the CÉGEP de Jonquière.
After finishing my classes in May of 2014, my French was (and is!) still very rough. I certainly wasn’t (and am not yet) fluent. My goal was to find a job to let me continue to learn and work on my language skills. My teachers had helped me work on a French version of my resume and cover letter, and I started to submit resumes in response to job notices.
I received a few responses. One of them was for a receptionist position at a nearby hotel. I met with the Director of Human Resources, and then she called in the Director of Operations. The only Anglophone working at the hotel, he and I instantly got along. I was basically offered the job that day. Long story short(er), I asked for a little bit of time to make a decision, and when I called back, I was hired.
I’ve been working for the hotel since early July of 2014. The first two weeks there were the scariest thing I can remember doing. Scarier than jumping out of a plane. Scarier that seeing Oklahoma City in the rearview mirror when I started the big move with my husband. Scarier even than braving the chair lift for my first attempt at snowboarding. And going to work wasn’t just one big leap. It wasn’t a “squeeze your eyes tight and jump and it’ll all be over in a minute” sort of thing. It was a constant struggle to understand and make myself understood. It was the constant anxiety of wondering whether I would be able to communicate with clients as they approached the desk. It was the frequent embarrassment and frustration when I wasn’t able to understand someone. It was constant doubt as I wondered if I was “getting it” while a coworker trained me.
I’ve been there for almost four months now. And I’ve been reflecting on my second language journey lately.
It’s funny, before you try to learn another language, you really have no idea what to expect. Learning most other things, new tasks at work, how to operate a piece of machinery, etc., is basically a linear and steady process. You start off knowing nothing. Someone demonstrates for you how to do something. Maybe you do some reading on your own. You practice, take guidance from someone more experienced than you, and steadily acquire more skill until you’re able to do that thing for yourself. Unsteadily at first, but with increasing confidence. You do more of it, and over time, you become more efficient, more adept, more comfortable. If, on November 1st, you know how to do this task, on November 2nd, you still know how, and you’re generally at least as proficient as you were the day before.
Language learning, for me, has only been remotely like other learning processes if I take the 10,000ft (or 100,000ft!) view. Sure, after almost 28 months here, I’m FAR more capable of communicating in French than I was when I arrived. And I’m more capable today then I was four months ago, when I started my job. And I was more capable that day than I was 8 months prior, when I started my full-time classes. However, day-to-day, and even week-to-week, that is not the case.
Some days, I feel almost fluent in French. I express myself with relative ease. The words I need pop into my head without having to search for them most of the time. I understand almost all of what is said to me, more than enough to get the sense of what someone is saying, and two-way communication is effortless and feels natural. I joke with clients and coworkers with ease, and I feel truly “myself” in my second language. (I find it MUCH harder to let my personality come through in French, with my limited vocabulary and the effort it takes to communicate.)
There are, however, OTHER DAYS. On my “bad French days,” nothing seems to click. I stutter when I answer the phone, stumbling over the routine greeting, and the voice on the other end is more mystery than meaning as I strain to recognize words. I feel like I have a speech impediment when I speak, a mouth that just won’t quite form the words that the brain is sending to it, and I find it incredible that anyone can understand what I’m saying. I have trouble expressing myself, and suffer through periods of silence when I’m unable to find words that will convey my thoughts to others. Many thoughts seem far too big to try to express with my limited and erratic vocabulary, and I’m trapped inside of myself.
Sometimes this happens when I’m overly tired or stressed, and that makes sense. But there’s not always any sort of identifiable cause when I struggle mightily. Sometimes, there’s not even any consistency, no rhyme or reason, to WHAT gives me great difficulty. I’ve had a day when I was simply completely unable to understand one coworker. He’s not normally any harder to understand than anyone else; he doesn’t have one of those tricky accents that slides past my ears, or speak especially quickly, or use a particularly advanced vocabulary when he speaks to me. For some reason that day, my brain was just not picking up on French spoken at the particular frequency of his voice.
And even on my “good French days”… Well, like I said, I never had any idea how this second-language thing worked before I started this journey. I thought you reached a certain point where you were able to communicate, and there might still be some words you don’t know (just like someone might use a word you don’t know in your native language, only you would, of course, encounter a lot more unknown words in a second language), but you recognize all the words you do know, and you are mostly like a native speaker, only with a more limited vocabulary and an accent that some people find cute. On any given Monday, you speak and understand at least as much French as you did on the Sunday before.
I may approach that point as I continue learning, but despite being what I would call quite functional in French at this point, it’s NOTHING like what I expected. I often feel like I’m underwater, scuba-diving, with plenty of air in my tank but still a bit short of breath. Conversations in French are made up of words like a huge school of tiny, fast fish. These quick, slippery fish circle around me, flitting this way and that unpredictably. I reach out over and over again with a small hand-held net, trying to catch as many of those fish as I can before they dart away again. Sometimes, the fish swim somewhat lazily and in an orderly fashion, and my net comes back full, with only a few stragglers swimming away beyond my grasp. Sometimes the school is more agitated and energetic and my swipes with the net slower and inept, and my net comes back empty, or nearly so, time and time again. Some days I’m excited to get my net out and go fishing. Some days I’m so exhausted or discouraged, I just want to let the net drift to the sea floor and quit trying.
It’s frustrating, embarrassing, and sometimes excruciating when it’s bad. But when it’s good, it’s incredible. It’s like I’ve won the most decisive battle of some important war. My heart soars, and I’m proud, and I feel like a bigger, brighter version of myself. Most of the time, however, it’s somewhere in between these two extremes. And most days, instead of an exciting adventure filling my net, or a frantic, out-of-breath race to try to capture at least *enough* and resist giving up completely, it’s just another day in the life.