Over the Easter break I decided to take the plunge and enroll on an intensive French language course for beginners. French has never been a language that I’ve been particularly attracted to. Instead I’ve always been drawn to the languages of Northern Europe for their logic, order and general coolness. In fact the list of languages that I would love to learn includes Finnish, Swedish and Icelandic (but this probably has a lot to do with my liking for bands like Korpiklaani, Amorphis, Entombed and Sigur Ros). Having said that I’ve dabbled in Romanian so there’s probably no real logic to my languages wish-list and whether I get around to learning them is another matter altogether.
But anyway, back to French. I think the accent is always something that put me off learning French. Not because I don’t like it, but because it seems to require a lot of effort to achieve the right level of sophistication and “Frenchness”. As an Irishman, I’m not a huge fan of flamboyance or drawing attention to myself and this gives rise to a sort of linguistic shyness which has put me off learning French for a long time. But I decided to give it a go because I’m going to a music festival called Hellfest in June which happens to be in France.
Excusez-moi, il faut prendre quelle direction, pour aller vers le centre ville?
Being a very well-organised festival there’s absolutely no need to speak French because everyone speaks English and there’s absolutely no danger of me going hungry, or more importantly, thirsty but as a linguist, I don’t like being reliant on the language skills of others. I’m used to being able to communicate with people, even if it’s just a few broken words and phrases to order a pizza or buy a train ticket and I find it frustrating when I can’t do this. Several translator friends have told me that I’m not alone in experiencing that incredible frustration of going to another country where I don’t speak the language. Last year I had this experience in China and in France and I didn’t like it. China in particular was especially frustrating because it is such a fascinating and exciting place that I felt I was missing out on a world of interesting things by not being able to speak or even read the language and it felt like I was just scratching the surface. I think the translator in me is so used to seeing something in a foreign language and understanding it that couldn’t come to terms with the fact that here was a language situation that I couldn’t decipher.
So I turned up on a Monday morning for my French class, a little apprehensive, but looking forward to it nevertheless. I told myself that I’m not here to become fluent, just to learn enough so that I can ask for directions, food and beer… no more! And I really enjoyed the class. The teacher had a nice relaxed style and there was a really friendly atmosphere in the class. But I found myself wanting to know more and I was actually in danger of becoming one of those students who constantly asks questions the answer to which is “we’ll be coming to that in a little bit if you’ll just bear with me” (and as a lecturer I know how annoying this type of student is). Once I’d reined in my enthusiasm I wondered whether the fact that I am a translator makes me an impatient language learner? Does being a career linguist make you impatient with yourself and your ability to pick up a language? I think that being a translator gives you a unique insight into how language works and you start making links between the different aspects of the language and then mapping it onto other languages. You then start to look beyond the set phrases and situations of a beginners class and want to know how to put the limited knowledge you’ve picked up to use. In the controlled environment of a language class this inevitably creates a little tension because your brain is trying to use the language at a faster rate than you can get the raw materials into your head. I think maybe at a subconscious level, translators view languages as a way of making money and when they learn a language their eye is on the meter and they just want to get to the stage where they can translate and earn money from it. Eeep, that makes us sound like a gang of mercenaries…