browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.

Nomads Adapt

Posted by on 22 October 2010

I seriously underestimated the disorienting effect of being surrounded by a language I don’t speak, don’t understand.

Because the friends we’re staying with speak perfect English (despite conducting much of their life in French) I assumed this part of Quebec would by like my experience in Ireland: everyone could speak Irish, but everyone also spoke English, often as their first language.

Nah.

Brush up on your French before you visit Quebec. You can find English; there are, I’m told, towns nearby where everything is in English. Just not here. Road signs, labels in the grocery store, even the ‘Open’ sign on the door (if Ouvert means ‘Open’, as I assumed) is in French, with English added almost as an afterthought.

From the age of 8 I lived in California, nearly always in San Diego. Everything was bilingual there, too. English first, then Spanish, often spelled wrong or using bad grammar. (For years, decades, perhaps, the signs in the bathrooms said Lave Sus Manos which would be like seeing a sign tell an English speaker to Wash You Hands; it should, as an Spanish-speaker knows, read Lavese Las Manos; there was a parody adventure show on one of the radio stations where the bad guy was the notorious Lave Sus Manos, so dangerous his name was posted in every bathroom in the state.)

At least here, the English is correct. It’s just smaller. Underneath the French. Not where I expect it.

And that’s what’s wrong. Clearly it’s not wrong for folks in what is legally a bilingual country to speak two languages. (Yet another aside: what do you call someone who speaks many languages? A polyglot. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks only one language? An American.)

What’s wrong is, as is often the case, my expectations. Had I kept my eyes and ears open; had I allowed for the possibility that reality might not perfectly mirror the image in my head, I might have spent a little time learning a few phrases of conversational French; I might have planned for an experience I’ve already had before when we moved to San Diego and thereafter spent lots of time in Mexico where my father worked, surrounded by a language I knew even less than I know French today.

My Spanish is okay; as a kid, we spoke Spanish at home quite a bit ’cause Dad was too tired to switch over after a long day of conducting business in Spanish. I’ve lost and remembered it twice over the decades. It helps with reading French. It also helps that I used to read the etymologies in my Dad’s giant Webster’s as a kid so I’m familiar with the Latin origins of much of the English and Spanish and French languages.

But I still feel like a fish out of water; un poisson sortie de l’eau. Which is literal; even Cristina doesn’t know French colloquialisms. I’ll have to ask Fred what the locals say.

About a hundred times a day, I’ll have to ask what the locals say.

9 Responses to Nomads Adapt

Leave a Reply