A friend of mine who had ventured to Quebec for a semester at Université Laval had a dire warning for me before I departed for el caribe.
“The immersion thing is hard,” he said solemnly. “Really hard. The only thing that you can share about yourself, the only funny or interesting thing about you for people, for the longest time, is your complete lack of understanding, your inability to converse.”
He would know. And as a French and Literature major at UMass Amherst, he would know better than most.
The hardship he recounted reminded me of a passage by David Sedaris a girlfriend once shared with me. In his collection of essays entitled “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” Sedaris chronicles his early life in Carolina, struggling with a lisp during his childhood. The book then turns to his life in New York City before departing into Partie Deux, which follows his relocation to Paris with his significant other. There, armed with only a month long crash course in French prior to his depature, and reinforced with some half-baked self study, Sedaris struggles trying to survive the immersion classes he attends soon after his arrival. His schooling, however, has at first the adverse effect of making him feel entirely helpless re: el idioma francés:
“My fear and discomfort crept beyond the borders of the classroom and accompanied me out onto the wide boulevards. Stopping for a coffee, asking directions, depositing money in my bank account: these things were out of the question, as they involved having to speak. Before beginning school, there’d been no shutting me up, but now I was convinced that everything I said was wrong. When the phone rang, I ignored it. If someone asked me a question, I pretended to be deaf. I knew my fear was getting the best of me when I started wondering why they don’t sell cuts of meat in vending machines. My only comfort was the knowledge that I was not alone. Huddled in the hallways and making the most of our pathetic French, my fellow students and I engaged in the sort of conversation commonly overhead in refugee camps.
‘Sometimes me cry alone at night.’
‘That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty. People start love you soon. Maybe tomorrow, okay.’ “
Sedaris’ account of his hardship with French has a beautiful universality to it, as anyone who has struggled with the immersion, trial por fuego method of assimilating language knows. The ever present fear of looking like a payaso that Sedaris describes is all so real, a creeping emotion that one must struggle to conquer day in and day out if one wishes to improve, to perhaps one day ‘talk pretty’. It is a fear that manifests itself in the simplest of dialogue, typical exchanges that should be easy and fluid become rigid and suffocating, and make you want to retreat inward. It is as if every day were the first day of school.
For the first few weeks here I didn’t say much, merely observing and trying to listen as I tend to do at first anyways, regardless of the language medium. But as I began to try to emerge from my introverted self, which I have learned over a lifetime to do in English (and am still learning), I began to struggle with this very same fear. Fear of saying things wrong, fear of looking like a loco, fear of not being able to even remotely express what I sought to convey.
In our second month here, though, I’m happy to say that most of that fear has dissipated. I had known it was something that I would inevitably feel, but it is certainly a struggle nonetheless. What eventually has to occur is an internal resolve to speak even when you are aware it is all wrong– even when it does not sound pretty–to talk even when you sound like a five year old, and to try and improve day in and day out, paso a paso.
What Sedaris perhaps lacked, though, at the outset of his experience in Paris, was a ‘french friend’. Like Sedaris and his classmates, Dan, Felicia and I have each other–and a handful of other gringos–with whom we can practice conversing, develop a common knowledge, and simply share our small victories and defeats. But beyond that, we already have among us a great group of native Spanish speakers as well, friends with whom we can casually chat and converse, build up a base of knowledge, and whom we can look to when we want to be corrected or to learn a new way of expressing something.
It is impossible to quantify how refreshing it is to sit around with Alex Perez and talk about the Red Sox (¿Sabes si los yankees perdieron anoche?), trying new verb structures, incorporating new vocabulary, or practicing forms that should already be committed to memory but aren’t. Or to converse casually with teachers regarding their day, or with friends about their plans for the coming weekend. To talk about interests: tennis, baseball, books—to share things about family with one another.
Our friend Valerie shared with us before she departed a term that I feel I understood before learning it—a weird sort of déjà vu feeling that happens when, for example, you conceive a book plot or storyline to soon find that the entire thing has already been written. It is something I think I understood, however, prior to learning the ‘term’ for it, from my time in Phoenix, where I spent a lot of time with foreign students conversing with them in English, and trying to build a dialogue with good friends from far away places.
What she alluded to is known as DOGME Language Teaching, a term that borrows it’s title from a film movement of the late 1990’s that stressed a sort of ‘authentic’ approach to filmmaking. The DOGME language theory, in somewhat of the same vein, stresses an ‘authentic’ learning of language, the basic theory being that language is learned not through textbooks, but through conversation.
And conversation, as this theory so eloquently puts it, is the place where learning of language occurs through the “co-construction of knowledge and skills”. It is a dialogic process, reciprocated between two or more persons.
It is one thing, therefore, to try and learn a language by absorbing it in passing from people one briefly encounters in a foreign place, from bits of conversation that fly by so fast that you are lucky to catch but one word. But to have friends, friends who are native speakers, who can help you to build up your skills, who can explain grammatical anomalies, and who will take the time and effort to talk around ideas you don’t know or understand with verbs and vocabulary that they know you do—these friends are priceless, for they make talking pretty someday seem a very real and tangible possibility.