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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Humbled Foreigner

Last year life led me on a whirlwind trip to Dubai.  On the way out I had to seek assistance at the Emirates Airline counter for my particularly awkwardly sized luggage.  She spoke first to me in English but after she saw my passport she switched to French.   I was both surprised and stumped. 

“You’re Canadian,” she said.  “You speak French – no?”

“Not really,” I muttered feeling somewhat ashamed and therefore quickly seized the moment to take the focus off of me and back on her.  “How many languages do you speak?”

“Six or seven.  Too bad, I was looking forward to speaking French,”  she shared.

Well, I will never forget that moment. What do you say after that?  Sure at one time I could speak some French.  I even liked it – but after not using it for many years, lost it a little.  Okay – a lot.

Now that I am working in Zurich I find that I am constantly reminded of that moment.  I hear people in the office speaking multiple languages comfortably all in the same hour.  I have to admit; I am nothing short of amazed by this.  Some of my new friends here annoy me by speaking 5 or 6 languages.

I am humbled.

This is why I go every Monday and Wednesday to German class.  For  five hours a week I feel like I am back in grade two struggling with writing out the simplest of sentences. 

Let me tell you there are a million other things I would rather be doing with those 5 class hours plus homework per week.  But I am trying damn it.  I have a friend who I sometimes meet after class and try to dazzle with my newly learned German repertoire.  A glass or two of wine for confidence and I start throwing around “the German”  Sometimes even mixed with a little Swiss German if I really want to show off.

Those moments are soon followed by a R rolling or guttural throat sound creating lesson that my mouth finds clearly impossible to master.

Awesome.  That’s all I have to say about that.

I was even excited about going to movies the other evening.  I thought I would finally see one without needing English subtitles for the first time in three years.  Nope.  My multilingual friend thinks somehow that would be ‘cheating’ for me.

Awesome again.

Though I am getting a little clever with this whole language barrier.  I have learned how to maintain eye contact whilst organizing a mental task list.  I can tell my tonal inflections when it is my cue to laugh or smile.  And if it is slow enough, I might even have the teeniest clue what people are speaking about. 

It is a little bit of a win-win situation for me.  I get my task list done, and they have a good listener at their disposal.

Actually, truth be known, I have gotten a lot better at this German thing - but that is turning out to be even more of a disaster.  For as soon as I start talking I am now often bombarded in full-grown up German sentences.  And it is in those moments that my ego really struggles as those wonderful few moments of enjoying and participating in a conversation in another language slip slowly away and I am humbled once again…  

...and here ya go, the Tragically Hip, another iconic Canadian Band.  

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