This was a question my youngest asked me a month of so after we moved to France.
What language, she wanted to know, did her new French classmates speak once they got home? Surely they reverted to English – since French was so hard?
Given how many fully grown English speakers can be witnessed in non-English speaking countries repeating English phrases ever louder, convinced that at some point the poor, bemused person on the receiving end will say “Oh, I see, madam, you want a LITTLE BIT OF MILK. I heartily apologise that it took me so long to comprehend,” I could absolutely forgive my eight-year-old from assuming that the world speaks English, if only behind closed doors!
Naturally I explained that when they got home, her new classmates would speak French.
“Because they are French, and they grew up speaking French. French is their natural language. When we get home from school and work we speak English, because we are English and that’s our family’s language. Everyone pretty much speaks the language they were born into when they’re at home and with their family. We were born into English so we speak that, most of your class mates were born into French – so that’s what they speak.”
You could see the cogs whirring as she slowly said,”Ohhhhh…..”
Tip of the culture change iceberg
There’s a lot to learn when you move to a new culture, a new language. For everyone. I had to learn how school works, what’s expected, where to look for homework assignments, how to book school lunch, how to cope with scared and lonely children, how to cope with my own, new kind of isolation and loneliness and make friends, where to find the raisins in the supermarket, how to behave in French company and all kinds of things. The children had to learn to speak a new language, to eat new food, to give their friends’ parents ‘bisous’, to survive in a more rough-and-tumble kind of playground culture, and a heap more.
That innocent question, “What do they speak when they get home”, I realise, was the tip of the iceberg of the huge undertaking that is settling into and integrating into a new country.
If you’re embarking on an adventure in a new culture – don’t underestimate it. There are a million little things to learn, and it takes a long time. If, indeed, you ever really feel you’ve ‘got it’.
And it can be fun too
A week or two back a French friend and I went out for some aperos together. We spoke some French, some English. And laughed very hard at our various in competencies in one another’s languages. It pays not to take yourself too seriously!
Here’s a giggle – the brilliant Eddie Izzard on learning French and those handy little phrases from third-year French that you just can’t forget, or use!