Language and oxygen. We’re consumed by both from our time of arrival until we shuffle off again. – Take either away and you suddenly realise how difficult life can become.
Earlier in the year we did just that. Driving along lane 126 at the Dover ferry terminal, we left the familiar sounds of our native language and boarded a ferry bound for France. English was now behind us. And just like a diver reliant on their oxygen regulator for survival, we too, produced the language equivalent of a scuba tank – The Lonely Planet’s Phrase Book to France.
Initially, new language is like an unbroken chain of crescendo-decrescendo notes that give rise to an exotic, but utterly useless, cacophony of linguistic frequencies. In the beginning, it’s the eyes that communicate; scanning for expressive facial contortions and gesticulations, in a receptive effort to understand the messages being relayed.
Overtime, you begin to hear key words amongst a sea of unfamiliar noise. But even this can be misleading; cuillère, cueillir, cuir, all sound nearly the same, yet one is a spoon, one is the animal skin we call leather, and the other is the verb to pick.. The magic in this however, is that sometimes -on very rare occasions- we can actually make ourselves understood by pronouncing the correct one in its rightful sentence.
A king with wobbly knees and a fatal appetite for prescription drugs once said; “The world’s a stage and each must play a part”. Maybe he was learning a new language too, because there’s no better way to describe the default setting you fall back to, when faced with the sudden loss of verbal communication. Acting, pointing, nodding and dancing become en vogue once words lose their meaning. After all, how else do you show you’d like an egg, other than to cluck and pull something out from your… cul.
Our English – French dictionary rose to a status higher than the wallet and smartphone. Yet eventually, even that got left behind. One day I found myself without it. Instead of breaking into a cold sweat, I just practiced a few phrases from memory and voila we were ready for a trip to the local patisserie: “can I have a spoon with my cake?” I asked in French to the welcoming proprietor of the cafe we’d ordered in. Judging by her reaction I must have asked for “a leather with my cake?” – Either way, c’est pas grave Madame – fingers will do.
Sounds make letters, letters make words, and eventually words progress to sentences. Finally, after five months, we found ourselves conversing in our new language about the French resistance during world war two, followed up soon after by the 1920’s suffragette movement.
It seems language immersion does that to you. One minute your life is full of mumbled, guttural phlegmy hoiks, the next, you’re keeping up with conversation around the dinner table. All be it in a mixed up half-way language of fr-anglais.
But if you get stuck, it’s no problem. So long as you can act your way out…