Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sprache öffnet Türen

"Les langues ouvrent des portes"

"Languages open doors"

Such was the phrase our German teacher presented to class on Tuesday the 5th of March.
Therefore, our assignment became to write (in German, of course) some sentences about our experiences with a foreign language we have learned in our lives. We had to go in order with the four following factors, which I will write below. Of all the foreign languages I have taken in my life (Japanese, German, French, and Chinese), I chose to write about French.

Here is a more elaborated version of my answers, written in English, thank you very much.

1. Erste Schnitte (Les premiers pas/First steps)
I can't really think of where I got exposure to French before I started taking it in 7th grade. All I can remember is that I found it one of the most beautiful languages in the world, and when offered the chance to take a foreign language as an elective class, I immediately chose it. Never mind that most people went into Spanish believing it would be more useful. I made my mind up and decided that I should learn how to speak French. At the time I don't think I was aware of what I was capable of, and in no way did I imagine I would become this fluent in a matter of four years. All I knew was that I was determined to do my best as I started out learning it (French was the first language I took formally in a class at school). I caught on to the language quickly, and was very excited to be learning it.
Let me put this picture from my very first blog entry just as a reminder, and as a demonstration of this.

2. Erste Schwieriegkeiten (Les premières difficultés/First difficulties)
You know how you think you can speak a language, and then you hear it being spoken in a song, or a film, or by native speakers on a voyage, and you understand nothing? I felt like that so many times. I was going through my travel journal, and there were times when I was in San Francisco hearing French being spoken. I could understand nothing except that the language was French, and it made me feel incredibly stupid. How could I do so well in a class, yet not make out what real French people were saying? That was quite frustrating, and I was beginning to question how much of a grasp I really had on the French language. This doubt also made me reluctant to exercise my skills whenever I had the chance to speak with a French person (before I met Aurore in 10th grade).

3. Schön Erfahrungen (De belles expériences/Good experiences)
It shouldn't surprise you that at this point, I have countless good experiences with French. I will start from the very first one that could count, and then recount some recent ones.
During my first time in Paris three years ago, we had some time for dinner after seeing the Notre Dame. So I went with my French teacher and some of the other kids to a place called Le Café de Notre Dame, and we sat down looking at the menus. I managed to muster the courage to order in French, and the waiter understood! It was a big deal. I even recorded myself ordering (and listened in horror two years later thinking, "And I thought I was good!?"). Well, we all have to start somewhere, don't we?
Some weeks ago, I dined with Claire the Australian, Matthieu the outbound, and two of his friends for lunch. Matthieu introduced me to them as an exchange student. The one I was sitting next to turned to me and, incredulous, asked, "Wait, you're a foreigner? But you talk like us!" I had nothing to say to that but "Really?" with a dorky smile on my face. I don't know if he realized how much it meant to me to hear him say that.
Throughout my exchange, I've met a lot of my friends' host parents. I don't mean to toot my own horn, but all the ones I have met remark on how well I speak French, and even now it still makes me feel bashful. I love hearing the compliments, and they remind me how far I have come and how this dream of mine is really coming true. Now that I have been here for over half a year, these are some of the compliments I have gotten as of late:
"You speak perfect French."
"Nobody would think you were a foreigner if they heard you talk."
"Hearing you talk, one would say that you are French."
and lastly
"You speak better French than certain French people."
I have a hard time believing that last one...
However, none of these can compare to the incident I am the most proud of.

4. Erfolgserlebrisse (Un moment où on était très fier/a moment that made us really proud)
The bac blanc oral for French class.
This is how it goes: the student would enter the room, and the professor would hand them a random text from the 11 we have studied in the year so far. It would be either an excerpt from the book Si c'est un homme by Primo Levi (about the Holocaust), or a poem by Baudelaire. The student would also be handed a prompt. Then they would have thirty minutes to write out and organize a plan to respond to the prompt. After that, they would sit in front of the professor and speak for (ideally) ten minutes, explaining their analysis of the text while responding to the prompt, and then be interrogated by the professor for another ten minutes on complimentary texts we studied class.
In short, the idea of it terrified me.
As I spent two and a half hours reviewing the 11 analyses we did of certain texts, I ingrained the idea into my mind that it is better to have tried, experienced, and failed, than to have not gone through it at all.
I was scheduled to do the oral on the Monday after the vacations, at 2:10 PM, in room 212.
The morning felt like an eternity as I dreaded the coming of the hour. I couldn't recall a time on this exchange where I have been as nervous. As the hour drew near, I could feel my heart beat uncontrollably as I ascended the staircase. I stood in front of room 212, watching the second hand on my watch tick. I ran to the window and stared out at the bright, clear day into the open countryside, then paced back and forth. Finally, I decided it was now or never, and I knocked on the door.
Upon entering, receiving my text (a Baudelaire poem), and sitting down, my nervousness dissipated as I diligently, determinedly wrote out my draft for the oral. That sort of working under pressure reminded me of the good old speech and debate days, and I almost ended up enjoying it.
It took about as much confidence as it did to order in the Café de Notre Dame as it did for me to walk up to my professor and take a seat in front of her.
I don't know if I spoke for ten minutes; I doubt it, but I spoke nonetheless. It wasn't up to my standards perfect, but what mattered to me was that I spoke clearly and professionally like I have been trained to. Madame Dumas seemed interested, and when she pulled out various other texts we had read in class asking me how they related, I was able to answer instantly, drawing from our studies in class. I'm not sure how long that went for either; all I know is that the entire thing lasted the 20 minutes it was supposed to.
At the end, Madame Dumas was very proud of me, and told me, "That was well done, Amanda. You are going to pass the bac at the end of the year. You've made so much progress throughout this year, it's crazy, in class and with your accent when you speak French. Congratulations!"
I got a 13 out of 20 when the class average was 11. Of course, she took into account that French was not my native language and didn't give me too complex of a prompt, but it's still worth celebrating nonetheless.

So anyway, about this business of languages opening doors.

I don't know if you read the first blog entry I posted in January, but in it I mentioned having met the author of a book on the Algerian war in a bar in Bressuire.
On Saturday the 9th, I found myself in the same bar, La Promenade, and the little old man was there again, playing card games with his friends. I wasn't sure if it was him, so I just sat down and took out my French homework, and just like the last time he went up to me and asked me what I was working on. Just like last time, I told him I was working on some poetry. He seemed rather content to see me again, and brought up his book, telling me he'd give it to me for 15€ instead of the 18€ retail, but then told me I wasn't obligated to. However, I told him that it interested me, and took up the offer. That made him very happy, and so he bought me a drink and gave me his business card and told me he'd see me again sometime and have his book for me.
His name is Roger Talbot
Unfortunately, I didn't know when I would be in that bar again...
The next day, I was in Bressuire again like previewed, on the way home from La Roche sur Yon. I had a wait of 2 hours and 45 minutes before my next bus, and had planned to stay in the station reading since everything is closed in France on Sundays. However, it was such a nice day outside, so I decided to see if La Promenade was open, doubting it was.
It was.
Just for that Sunday, too, since there was some sport event on the TV.
I was pleasantly surprised and pleased with my luck, and there was hustle and bustle going on in the bar. Satisfied, I went in and looked for Roger, but he wasn't there. I took my seat and, figuring I had time and nothing to lose, took out my phone and called the number he gave me.
He spoke with me on the phone, and being the nice little old man he is, told me he'd be at the bar in 20 minutes.
Once he arrived, he joined me and ordered me another drink. We spent some time chatting, and as he is somebody who frequents the bar often, many people came by to greet us. One of his friends came and sat down with us. Although they said more to each other than I said to them, it was still enjoyable company.

Jean-Luc and Roger
They fondly reminded me of my own grandpa and his buddies and how they would meet up at the coffee shop discussing who knows what 
I joined in the conversation as much as I could, and they seemed to appreciate my being there. Roger spoke of how he had many friends who were professors, and when I told him my dad was a professor of violin, he applauded and told me to pass it on to him. (Here you go, dad.) And apparently, Jean-Luc was also born in 1959 like my dad, so he had a toast to pass onto him as well. I also found out that Jean-Luc grew up in Parthenay, so he too bought me a drink, just between Parthenaisiens. Seeing as I had already had two glasses of iced tea, I almost refused the offer, but he insisted. I passed about 2 hours with them, and the atmosphere was very amicable. I'm not sure how I was able to sympathize with two older men, and I can't say I was expecting I would spend time with a jolly old war veteran and another Parthanaisien in a bar 30 kilometers away from home, but what can I say...

Oh, the book!

I got it.
On the inside page, Roger wrote me a dedication...

Here is the translation:

"Dear Amanda,
I am really satisfied to have had the chance to meet you. In this dedication, I wish you success and happiness in your life. I also dedicate this to your sister Cara as well as your parents. I am thankful that I met you. Receive, Amanda, my most sincere and cordial of friendships.
I wish you well.
P.S. Especially, good luck for your studies in the United States."

I was touched. He hasn't even known me for that long, I didn't even play the ukulele for him, but simply because I spoke with him and showed interest in his book (which is genuine, by the way), he told me, "I'm not going to forget you. Thank you so much," before he left. I had no words but, "I did nothing."

Really, I didn't.

I was simply being myself, which made me wonder, what must he have seen in me? This led me to look into myself and realize that there is nothing that makes me happier than knowing that I have inspired joy within others just by being who I am, or doing simple things like playing the piano or singing and playing the ukulele for them. And it is for that reason that I want to be a doctor when I grow up. I live for people telling me I have helped them, people giving me their most sincere gratitude, people telling me I have made them happy. Many humans in this world care too little about others, are intolerant, close-minded, or indifferent, and the least I can do is not join in their ranks.

That is another reason I love foreign languages.

I doubt the incident with Roger would have happened if I did not speak French. The more languages I speak, the more people I will be able to reach out to, the more stories I will be able to hear, the more lessons I will be able to learn, the more my life will be enriched. Sure, everyone is learning how to speak English, but it is way different speaking to someone in their native language than it is in a language they are often forced to learn.

In my opinion, to love languages that are not one's own is to love humanity.

One more theme that seems to be recurrent on this exchange; it's up to you to interpret it now. It's a little word called

Actually, I should put the French version of it that just HAPPENED to turn up on a poster at the last Rotary dinner I went to. Coincidence?

I think not.

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