While working on my seven-week internship in Grenoble, France, this winter, I lived with my older sister, Albena, and her boyfriend, Henri. He and I had some interesting language clashes. My sister and I speak English and are native Bulgarian speakers. Albena is fluent in French, and Henri is a native French speaker. He’s at about the same level in English as I am in French: our level of comprehension is decent, but we have difficulties articulating our thoughts. Oh, and the only words he knows in Bulgarian are fries, beer, and shoes.
It was fascinating to follow the progression of these three languages morphing into one big mix by the end of my stay in France. At first, the only person comfortable switching between languages was Albena since she’s confident speaking in all three. Henri and I were eager to practice our English and French, respectively, but were hesitant to speak freely at first—especially because Albena was always around to translate for us. In time, Henri and I found ourselves in situations—when she was at work, for example—in which we had to push ourselves to string together our knowledge of English and French in order to communicate with each other. We often had to combine languages in order to fill in words that escaped our memory or were beyond us. Preparing lunch or shopping for groceries together were some of the most amusing learning experiences because we had no choice but to let down our guard and just talk.
Of course, this led to many humorous situations. One evening Henri and I were cooking dinner, and I asked him to pass me the lemons. I knew something had come out wrong when he turned around and gave me a puzzled look. Instead of citron, I’d used the French word serpent and asked for a snake. On a different occasion, Henri told me that when he was a teenager, his regular means of traveling was “hijacking.” After a brief exchange, I figured out he was speaking of “hitchhiking.”
We had lots of good laughs, and I realized that in order to learn, you have to let go—and that in doing so, you’re never sure where you’ll end up. This experience challenged my need for control and taught me that learning always involves some self-abandonment.
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