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?

Speaking in tongues

Lord Ganesha

By Ranjitphotography93 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m spending the week at a yoga retreat near Angoulême in southwest France with a group of people from all different backgrounds: English, Irish, Welsh, Swedish, South African and American with a dose of French, German and Moroccan influence thrown into the pot for good measure. With limited access to the outside world, conversation has been our main form of entertainment in between the ‘oms’.

The stories and voices of my fellow yogis have been echoing so loudly in my mind that I found it difficult to write my planned blog post. I changed topics three times before finally deciding to write about being a sponge for other people’s voices.

I’ve always been fascinated by accents and different ways of saying things. When I was a child I decided it was much more interesting to speak with an English accent, so I contrived to speak that way. Needless to say I got teased relentlessly and dropped the act.

Now, when I feel a strong connection to someone, be it a colleague or a close friend, I will unconsciously imitate their way of speaking, even pick up on some of their preferred adjectives or verbal tics. “It’s so-o-o-o lovely,” I find myself saying in uncharacteristic accents to a Brit. “Whaddya reckon?” I’ll ask a friend from down under. Or continually add “Ya know?” at the end of my sentences. Worse, in conversation with someone whose English is halting, I’ll occasionally go to their level and begin to speak pidgin. It gets embarrassing.

When I was learning the mechanics of French grammar, I got my head so inside the French way of saying things that for some time it felt like I could no longer speak proper English. “You must go around before to cross the bridge,” I would say confusingly when asked how to get to the other side of the Seine in Paris. (Il faut faire le tour avant de traverser le pont.) Or, ridiculously:  “I envy a chocolate croissant.” (‘Avoir envie’ being to feel like having something). Temporarily losing my ability to put a sentence together in English was a growing pain of learning another language.

I suppose that internalizing other people’s voices is a form of empathy. It’s my way of actively listening in order to put myself in their shoes. But sometimes it feels like a handicap.

As a writer, you have to find to your own voice and remain true to it. I’ve felt unsure of that voice many times over the past months, convinced I was all over the map in this blog. But reading it back with a bit of distance, it does feel fairly consistent. So I need to let the voices quieten in my mind this week before I go back to my next planned post, or it may sound a little out of sync.

Yoga is stretching me in more ways than one. I may be stiff and sore for a few days from opening up to different ways of thinking and doing things but hopefully I’ll find my voice again soon. With perhaps just a hint of somewhere else.