As I think I mentioned in a previous blog, I speak a lot of French these days. I have had days that have gone by where I have not spoken English at all, which, as pretentious as it sounds, is a rather strange concept to understand. I would argue that this adoption of a new language is a mark of a new identity, for a number of reasons. I am sure there are a number of linguists that will agree with me on this one.
Firstly, the syntax of French and English is often very different. For those non-linguists out there, I refer here to the structure of a sentence. In some cases, the entire sentence is completely reformulated when one translates from one language into another. This provides an entirely new perspective and way of thinking. The difference is even more marked when one translates into or from Russian, which has a different syntactical structure again. There is an old argument that exists that “to learn a new language is to see the world through different eyes” and in this context, this argument is correct.
I feel I have a different level of communication when I speak to my European friends, where French is our lingua franca. I am very relieved about this as it means a language lesson is as simple as a trip to the pub. The good thing about speaking French with non-French people is that we will correct each other and help each other out. This is also something I have experienced with French people, including my flatmates and their friends.
My communication in French though is much more formal than my communication in English, as my knowledge of the colloquial language is more limited. It is probably far more correct than when I speak in English, as I tend to make more effort to speak accurately and make myself understood. I have deep respect for all the teachers I have ever had who have ever pretended not to understand me when I made mistakes. This is not to say that I speak French perfectly – I definitely do not and I have a long way to go before I come even close to that!
French, English and Russian all express different sides to my personality. I would say that I have a more adult vocabulary in Russian, as I learned it at a more mature age than when I learned English. I probably still sound like a teenager when I speak English, though a quick flit through twitter trending topics suggests that I am definitely no longer down with the kids!
Over the course of this year abroad, I feel the one thing that has developed more than my language skills is in fact my own sense of personal identity. I feel like this has been the most formative experience in my life so far. By living in other countries, you start to adopt parts of their culture as your own. Russia has made me more sincere and respectful, as well as teaching me the value of keeping some of my cards hidden. Russians have such an amazing enigmatic quality which I respect hugely. France has taught me about being polite, laid back and friendly – you say “bonjour/bonsoir” to everyone here, even the bus drivers. That would never happen in London – though maybe that is because I am living in the provinces here, and not the capital.
My year abroad so far has taught me the value of all relationships – friendships, family relationships and professional relationships. It has taught me to be open minded. Sharing a foreign language with someone from the other side of the globe is a truly amazing thing. I had a conversation last week with a Chinese girl who spoke no English and I don’t speak a word of Chinese (any kind), yet we had a fantastic discussion about South East Asia – my intention to visit and her experiences of visiting. Such a conversation would not have been possible without our shared knowledge of French.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is why foreign languages are so important. I’m not going to go into some kind of pro-careers lecture about how everyone should employ me because I speak 2 foreign languages – this is not my cv. No. Foreign languages are so important for the sum of human awareness and understanding. How else are we meant to function as a planet if we cannot communicate with one another?
If you asked me what my one tip for a future year abroad Language student would be? Stop speaking English!