Wired produces a really cool Youtube series where they examine a profession and an expert tells you the positive and negatives that accompany daily life on the job. One is about interpreters, and how mentally taxing it can be to translate a language, particularly in real time. The video even references a translator who collapsed from the mental strain. I thought about that video often while in France covering the World Cup, because every day was a roll of the dice on whether I would be able to communicate sufficiently.
I’m first-generation American; my parents immigrated from South Korea in the ‘70s for graduate school. They still speak with Korean accents and sometimes have trouble with articles, or plurals, because English is very much not an easy language. But they are, for the most part, fluent. Their journey to that fluency is something that I’ve often grappled with, first as a young child who couldn’t understand just how hard it was for her parents to speak English, then as a teenager being asked to double-check her father’s writing, and now as an adult who just spent a month in a place where I had trouble communicating every day. Living in a place where I barely spoke the language was intensely humbling, which is why I believe it’s a vital experience everyone should undertake at least once.
[Get more from Steph: Best and worst of living in France during the World Cup]
Most of the Americans I spoke to who were in France for the World Cup said that, in the days or weeks they were there, usually an earnest attempt at French was enough for them to get by, because most of the French people they spoke to knew some English. But once you leave the tourist areas and need to talk to more than waiters or the hotel’s front desk staff, you encounter people who have no use for English in their day-to-day lives, and therefore can’t switch languages no matter how much of a good faith effort you make. I had to go to a pharmacy for a cut on my eye, and the lovely employee who helped me didn’t speak a word of English, so I was forced to cobble together a couple of phrases (I forgot the singular word for eye too), supplemented by hand gestures. I felt like a fool the entire time. Who can’t ask for something as basic as ointment for a cut? Me, as it turns out.
I took six years of French in school, which was suitably long enough ago that, going into June, my skills were beyond rusty and approaching disintegrated. Even though the fundamentals of the structure of French have stuck with me, my vocabulary is nowhere near extensive enough to be considered “conversational.” So if I knew I would be entering a conversation, I pre-scripted as much of it as possible in my head, assembling sentences with care, then promptly floundering on the follow-up, which required me to speak French on the fly. Sentences came out in the wrong tense, or in the wrong person. I was constantly reaching for words that just weren’t there because I hadn’t learned them yet. I had to ask everyone to repeat themselves, this time slower, please. Sometimes I resorted to just bobbing my head, with a confused oueh or désolé.
I definitely picked up bits and pieces while there — some idioms, some curse words, some conversational fillers. But a month and change certainly wasn’t enough time to get back to even high school French levels. My last conversation in French was with my friendly hotel shuttle driver, who said his little brother plays for the Seattle Sounders, but that it’s tough for him to watch games with the time difference. He switched back and forth between French and English with much more assured footing than I did.
I don’t think I realized the level of strain my brain was under until I landed back in Boston, and suddenly everything was written in English. There was no added middle step between me and understanding the environment or the people around me. It was like my processor dropped from working at 100 percent capacity all the time to just handling basic background processes; it literally felt like my brain was unclenching. And that wasn’t even with total immersion, since I was often around other English-speaking fans and journalists.
I couldn’t imagine the strain of living like that for longer than a month. Sure, as time goes on, you gain more fluency and your brain can relax little by little. But getting there is a tiresome, frustrating, humbling process, and it made me think about my parents, and all the other immigrants who decide to dive headfirst into a new home, trying to learn as they go without even the benefit of six years of language lessons at school. It must have been scary at times for my parents, who weren’t just moving to a new country, but also trying to earn advanced degrees in fields filled with technical jargon. You can study all you want before moving somewhere, but it’s one thing to construct sentences in a classroom and quite another to actually think and speak in another language in real time, to someone who may have a different regional accent or dialect, with a different idiomatic vocabulary, who speaks five times faster than your teacher. How often did my parents feel like fools, despite their education, their intelligence, their fortitude? How tired must they have felt at the end of every day, longing to be understood quickly and easily, to be able to navigate space absentmindedly instead of constantly having to be on the alert for a missed direction?
I’ve always been sensitive to the scorn shown to people who speak with an accent — after all, if they’re struggling with a second language, that just means they have a first language, which puts them ahead of anyone who refuses to stray from their mother tongue. But living it out, even for a little while, impressed on me just how daunting and unsettling it is to not be able to communicate even the smallest of things, and what a relief it is to be able to connect with other people, even if it’s over something as simple as the weather.