I’m fortunate that Canada recognizes two official languages: english and french. Most Canadians have easy access to language classes, immersion programs and educational & vocational services. Sounds pretty great, no? Too bad I never took advantage of my privilege.
Well, except for the one time I participated in an introductory french course in junior high school. I learned how to say hello and introduce myself … and that’s about it. Bonjour, je m’appelle Brandi. Great! Except that one day I’d call France home.
Speaking another language
Did you know 60% of people in the world speak more than one language? Before I moved overseas I wasn’t one of them. Growing up in a predominant english-speaking region of Canada (hi, Calgary!) I wasn’t aware of the global scope or benefits of multilingualism. Life in Europe opened my eyes to the role language played in intercultural communication. In my experience, learning conversational french and german gave way to personal and professional growth. These skills opened up opportunities for my husband and I that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
I won’t sugarcoat it, learning another language as an adult is a b*tch. Some companies provide assistance to their expat employees and spouses, so make sure to understand your specific contract details. Even without this support, you can find ways to educate yourself after you’ve arrived in the new country. Think of it as a first step towards cultural integration and becoming more comfortable with your foreign surroundings.
Make language classes a priority
I enrolled in formal lessons at Berlitz when I moved to Paris. Despite the best of intentions, I attended only a few sporadic classes. I would cancel for coffee dates with friends, travel plans with my husband or a myriad of other lame excuses. My lack of commitment resulted in slowed progression and an inability to complete simple tasks in french alone. In the beginning, this didn’t bother me much. Because I had a secret weapon: my husband.
He’d already learned comprehensive french in high school and was able to function with ease in our new adopted home. He was so great at providing context and clarity, that I eventually stopped trying on my own.
When you think you understand … but don’t
One day when I was home alone in our apartment there was a knock at the door. A man with a large, bizarre looking broom spoke a barrage of french to me. I roughly translated that he was sent by our landlord to clean the chimney attached to our fireplace. Feeling overconfident that I understood what he’d said, I let the man inside. An hour or so later he finished up and haded me an invoice for €175.
What? Turns out skipping all my language lessons wasn’t such a great idea. I’d assumed our apartment fees covered the expense. I was wrong, they didn’t.
With only broken french at my disposal, our communication broke down and I refused to pay the bill. With no solution in sight I called my husband and handed the phone to the agitated man. As I expected, my husband apologized for my lack of understanding, calmed the situation and renegotiated the terms. Phew. After my husband returned home we spoke about the uncomfortable situation. We agreed that it was time to go back to class and stop relying on him for basic interactions.
The moral of the story?
Be grateful if have a supportive spouse, but don’t forget to stand on your own two feet. Dig deep and motivate yourself to keep learning and attend scheduled classes! Stay diligent and you’ll improve, which will in turn grow your confidence and ability to function. And when a strange man with a broom shows up at your door, you’ll know not to invite him in!