Speaking in tongues, bis

I’m borrowing this title from a post I wrote way back in the early days of this blog. Hence the ‘bis’ which as you probably know means ‘encore’ or something added, as in another address of the same number. Let’s call this one 2013 bis.

My first tongue — mother, naturally — came to life early on and was unstoppable. I was a talker from the most tender age. Family lore has it that my younger brother never said much because I did all the talking for him. I must have tired of this after a while though, or been scolded into silence, because as I grew up I became a lot more selective about who I spoke to, preferring to retreat into silence in social situations until sure of my footing. Then you can’t shut me up.

When I began learning la langue de Molière a few decades later, I quickly learned to think carefully before speaking because, well, the French don’t let you get away with much. Eventually French became more or less second nature and I stopped worrying about making mistakes or using words that don’t technically exist. Ce n’est pas oblig!

My third tongue I suspect will not be as fluent as the previous two. I am a lot older, if only occasionally wiser, going into this linguistic adventure. But far less afraid.

I have begun what they call a semi-intensive course of German A1 level here in our town: two hours twice a week. We are a group of six beginners: A Greek woman who works as a chef, a Czech woman whose boyfriend plays soccer on the local team, two Portuguese guys both of whom are called André (what’s the chance of that?) and a single mother who is a Tibetan refugee. And moi, the doyenne (elder) of the group. They are all half or perhaps even a third of my age.

On the first day the teacher asked us how long we had been in Switzerland (English is the default language, lucky for me). When I said I’d only just moved here, he seemed surprised. I explained about living near Geneva and working in the French-speaking part of Switzerland since 2007.

“So you’ve actually been here much longer. Geneva is also in Switzerland,” he reminded me. Yes, but…!  I thought but didn’t manage to articulate. My tongue had decided to retreat into my head out of respect for the teacher’s superior knowledge.

I guess he had a point, but it does feel like moving to the German-speaking part of this small but complex land here in Central Switzerland is like moving to another country.  

“And have you taken German lessons before?” asked the teacher. I shook my head. No. Nein!

“Ah, so this is your first German class?” I nodded dumbly, thinking: Yes, I am a German virgin.

Thankfully by then my tongue was well and truly silent.

I suspect my third tongue will give me trouble, as have the other two. But hopefully by the time I start wielding it I’ll have a few more words in my vocabulary than Ich spreche kein Deutch.

How about you? Do you feel comfortable speaking in tongues?


  1. margaret21 · October 16, 2020

    It’s a funny one. Like you, living in France, I became quite comfortable in French, unconsciously adopting the idiom and accent of the Midi. Now my daughter lives in Spain – well, Catalonia – so I’ve been learning Spanish, the language she and her partner communicate in, even though he’s assertively Catalan. I’m oddly shy of speaking Spanish in front of her – she’s inherited her dad’s facility with languages, and in fact the whole thing is fraught compared with learning French , with which I was surrounded every day and had a decent grounding in anyway. Book learning is a poor substitute, as my native-speaker teacher has moved away, so it’s back to the books and the internet. Isn’t Swiss German a little different from Hochdeutsch? Not enough to be a problem, I guess?

    • MELewis · October 16, 2020

      Definitely different, but I have no basis to compare yet. Starting with the basic German and learning the dialect as appropriate I think. How interesting that you also speak Spanish! Catalonians are notoriously resistant to Madrilian, I think. Your daughter sounds like a brave spirit!

      • margaret21 · October 16, 2020

        Especially now, pregnant in a pandemic. I wouldn’t say I SPEAK Spanish exactly ….

  2. phildange · October 16, 2020

    Hello Swiss immigrant (not in a concentration camp yet ?) About tongues I discovered that motivation is the absolute factor . I left to Brazil long ago, speaking nothing but French and English which both appeared to be useless, cause I traveled alone with a backbag wanting to mix among the very basic people and deliberately avoiding the Rich . For several reasons I was in love with Brazil before I put a foot there and I left with the intention to “become Brazilian”, to become able to feel and thing like them .. So after one month I was able to chat all night with any local .
    And I’ll tell you one thing : one day on a little fishermen’s island I met a young Austrian couple who traveled like me, they spoke Brazilian and they had been smart enough to find this little paradise . Instinctively when we met we started using the Londonian creole called a language but very soon both sides felt there was something wrong, the feeling, the atmosphere, there was no longer music and harmony . We felt the same in the same moment and we came back to the local tongue . We were highly motivated and in tune with the local soul, this is always the key .
    I did the same in Mexico with Spanish but, although I learnt to speak and understand fluently, I was not in love with the local spirit and the result was I often had to think before speaking, a thing that had completely stopped in Brazil afer 2 months .
    And when you really dislike something in a country, speaking can become a real hassle, even a pain . I had to communicate in Egyptian Arabic for months while I learnt to hate the Egyptian national mentality : speaking their tongue became like an illness .
    On the contrary in our beloved 70s I spent a third of my time in Morocco and, as I very fast adored their way of being, speaking Darija, their version of Arabic, was not only a pleasure and a necessity but a pride and the essential key toward their mind and heart .
    So here is my testimony on this subject . But if I was immersed like you in the most boring country of the planet, I don’t see what I could do to find another motivation than escaping ha ha 😍

    • MELewis · October 17, 2020

      Sans mauvais jeu de mots (and there are things we really shouldn’t joke about, but you beat me to it, lol), the only ‘concentration’ camp I am in is the one where my forehead is continually creased with trying to figure out what anyone is saying. Because unlike you i am not very good at just picking things up from people on the street. I’m glad my humble experiences in this boring (but oh-so comfortable to me!) country recalled your fond Brazillian adventures. To be able to speak without thinking, or at least not to be aware of the process, is a wonderful freedom. Tschuss!

      • phildange · October 17, 2020

        Learning was not that piece of cake . In the first weeks I kept carrying a micro-dictionary that I consulted all the time, before conscientiously doing my homework in the long hours of bus, imagining situations of life where I had to use the numerous new words I just leant (I must not forget the hundreds of complacent victims I bothered asking them to correct my pronunciation, sometimes pure strangers in the street) . More important I carried a grammar/conjugation booklet, but an old school one from the 60s because “modern” ways are a huge waste of time and efforts for the classical French scholar that I was . And I spent hours of imagining, rehearsing, systematically using all persons of all tenses of all moods of all groups of verbs . I became again the same serious pupil I had been at school when I learnt Greek and Latin .
        The immense advantage of traveling alone is you have to use immediately what you just put into your memory and you are not distracted by people who speak your old language . Besides, with little money you often really NEED to express yourself and make you understood, especially in dangerous areas .

      • MELewis · October 17, 2020

        Ah, well then I am reassured. It’s not a superpower, but commitment and hard work! I agree it helps to keep a good old-fashioned vocabulary list and review. But that kind of structured learning has sadly gone by the wayside. You are expected to ‘pick things up’ in conversational teaching. Give me a good old book any day!

  3. Ally Bean · October 16, 2020

    I cannot speak any language except English, and there are days when that is in question. I took Spanish classes in college, loved them, but discovered I don’t have the ear for languages. I can read words, and usually guess their meanings, but to talk in Spanish I’m about at a 3 y.o. level. I look forward to reading about your experiences learning German, you virginal vixen!

    • MELewis · October 17, 2020

      Ha, ha…glad to share my German adventures! Let me reassure you: if it weren’t for moving away from my English-speaking province I would have likely ever spoken a word of another language. I do have a pretty good ear for accents but understanding the stream of spoken words is very challenging.

  4. francetaste · October 16, 2020

    You’ll get there, as you did with French. Immersion helps, and you’re surrounded by German. I found, when improving my French, that watching TV in French with French subtitles helped to tease apart words that might otherwise run together and be lost. Also good for learning slang.
    I was invited once to some friends’ home for dinner, including their adult son who lived with them because of severe learning disabilities. They all shifted easily from French to English to Flemish, the son included. I was still new in Brussels and struggled with French and was completely lost with Flemish. That seemed to indicated to me that practice is more important than “intelligence.”

    • MELewis · October 17, 2020

      Interesting. I’ve heard about the language mix in Brussels and among Belgians but have never been there — would love to visit one day. The problem today is that it is so much easier to access an English (or even French) translation that it becomes more challenging to really delve into a new language.

  5. Suzanne et Pierre · October 16, 2020

    Good luck with learning a new language. It is always a hard process; especially at the beginning but you will start making progress and it will be rewarding. We have been having Spanish on our list of languages to learn but have yet to make any progress on that front. It is such a arduous process that we keep putting it back…maybe we will get there eventually… (Suzanne)

    • MELewis · October 17, 2020

      I think it helps to have a real motivation, like planning a trip or spending time in the country. I don’t speak a word of Spanish but my son learned it at school and then spent a year in Uruguay where he became quite fluent. I always thought Spanish was easier for French-speakers compared to German or English but I guess it can also be more confusing when things are similar but different. Hopefully you will soon be able to plan a trip and get going on the Spanish lessons!

      • Suzanne et Pierre · October 17, 2020

        You are totally right and living in an area where the language is spoken is the best way to learn. That is how I became fluent in English by living in Toronto for 25 years!
        As for Spanish, there are a lot of differences and as some of their sounds come from Arabic it is difficult to replicate by French speaker but I guess that it should be easier to learn. Hopefully, one day we will find the occasion to learn it.

  6. Becky Ross Michael · October 16, 2020

    I took French all throughout high school and barely remember a thing. I admire anyone who can learn new languages!

    • MELewis · October 17, 2020

      Thanks, Becky! I hated foreign languages in school at it seemed so pointless. Until you suddenly find yourself in the situation, then suddenly you see the reason to learn.

      • Becky Ross Michael · October 17, 2020

        I’m sure that does make the whole process feel much different!

  7. anniedm778 · October 16, 2020

    I speak French & Italian, intermediately. My daughter has lived in Germany for 7 years now and so, I have had to learn German, a little more each year. It still sounds so foreign to the romance languages, but I’ve got some useful phrases in my head. When I’m there with her, I let her do the talking as she’s fluent, to the point of forgetting her English. The first couple of times I visited her, she sent me off on the train solo to explore, and I freaked out a little, but I did make it back to her apartment ok. And I learned to rush up to info desks saying help, help! lol

    • MELewis · October 17, 2020

      Wow, four languages! Sounds like you have a great opportunity to keep up your daughter’s English while perfecting your German. I think train travel is a great way to explore a new place as it’s hard to get too lost when you can always make your way back to the train station.

  8. Susanne · October 16, 2020

    As an Ontarian, I’m embarrassed to admit I’m a unilingual Anglophone. I can speak basic French and make pleasantries but any deeper than tombstone data is not possible. I’m pretty darn impressed you’re learning a 3rd language!

    • MELewis · October 17, 2020

      Listen, if I hadn’t left Canada I would speak nary a word of any other language. Even my high school French was forgotten by the time I made it to France. But there is no teacher like necessity, and I hate feeling like such an idiot that I can’t communicate with people on the street. Who for some reason talk to me all the time!

  9. acflory · October 18, 2020

    -giggles- I can see lots of tongue biting in your future. I do applaud your courage though. Me, I’m working hard at forgetting languages. I started with Hungarian, then at the age of four English became my mother tongue. Then lots of French, a smidgeon of Cathtilian Spanish, a bit of pidgeon German, a year of Chinese, and three of Japanese. Now I can barely speak a whole sentence in any of them, including Hungarian which I haven’t spoken since Dad died.
    Languages are unforgiving if you don’t practise them. 😦

    • MELewis · October 21, 2020

      Wow, that is quite the mélange of different langues…even if you’ve forgotten much of them. My husband is currently learning Japanese, and really seems to enjoy the lessons. I can’t even imagine learning a whole new alphabet never mind one that involves pictures. It’s true that practice in language is essential and I think that will be the challenge for me in German. But I’ll give it a go, at least to get the basics flowing. Hopefully one day you’ll have a chance to get back to Hungarian at least? I imagine that it must only lie dormant as it was your first language.

      • acflory · October 21, 2020

        Tell your husband, ‘Bravo!’ The Offspring and I sometimes watch Japanese animations with subtitles so we can ‘hear’ the spoken language. I pick up words here and there but any fluency I had is long gone. I still love the sound of the language though.
        German is a nice sounding language too but I think the grammar would be very hard. Good luck!
        Sadly, now that Mum and Dad are both gone, there’s literally no one left that I can speak Hungarian with. I’m sure it would come rushing back if I needed it but it’s definitely not front of mind.

  10. MK Graetz · October 21, 2020

    I loved learning French in high school and college, and speaking it in France. When I found myself living in Germany, I took in my town (where English was NOT the default language and we all started in German from day 1). Although never fluent, I was great in restaurants, the market and in a train compartment (do those still exist?) until we got to science or politics… My favorite language is Italian, which I studied the 6 months I lived there – for me it is the most melodious and expressive. Enjoying following your adventures on The Other Side now!

    • MELewis · October 21, 2020

      The trains definitely exist, especially in Switzerland. Although most of the controllers and restaurant staff are multilingual. But even hearing the information in German is helpful for me right now. I’ve been coming to this part of the country for years without knowing a single word, and now it’s fun to actually understand what it means when they say ‘Gleis funf’. 😅 Glad you are enjoying the vicarious adventures from across the pond. Hopefully you’ll be able to travel again soon and use your languages. I’ve only ever sung in Italian but I agree it is one of the most beautiful languages to the ear!

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