25 September 2015

Transcontinental Communication

My first major linguistic mistake happened before I even boarded the plane to France. Certain words appear similar in French and English but the translations differ greatly, sometimes catastrophically. My French teacher calls them "false friends" and despite multiple  revisions I managed to use one of the most common in the first line of my host family letter.
Thankfully, even after reading that "I was so aroused to being headed to France!" my family agreed to keep me. I showed my mistake to my brother after arriving in French and made sure he knew I meant excited and happy. He cracked a knowing, mocking half-smile. My mistake was common enough to be understood but my year wasn't off to the best start. 
My French language struggles did not cease upon arriving in the Charles de Gaulle airport, despite all my wishing. Standing at the front on a long line while a barista impatiently demands you place an order became my definition of true fear. No amount of classroom French could have prepared me for the reality of life in Rennes. Three weeks into the whole experience I finally ordered breakfast fearlessly but I still ended up with a bitter espresso  that morning, after failing to communicate my preference for candy flavored coffee. Another time, I meant to ask for no whipped cream but ended up instead with an extra, separate serving of whipped cream and a bit of judgement towards my "gourmand" tastes. My progress seemed slow, to say the least. 
Crew practice really put the language barrier into perspective. I knew I wanted to continue practicing my sport so with some help I found the local team. Sure, ordering food was exciting but when I walked into the boathouse I entered a whole new realm of French. My sport requires an assortment of arcane words, like coxswain and wayenough, for daily practice. In Rennes, the sport is exactly the same. The vocabulary, not so much. The first day of practice I listened so intently, just trying to understand, that one of my future teammates assumed I didn't speak French. Only when she began bad mouthing me to her friend, who gently pointed out I could probably understand, did I know what the conversation was about. Learning <<tribord>> for "starboard" and <<√©quilibre>> for "set" in the boat made me realize that even just combining my teammates scant English combined with my basic French somehow kept us from completely crashing the boat. Hand motions and round about explanations played a huge role, and though far from eloquent by the end of practice the whole boat seemed to be working as a team, despite the language barrier. Though a very small accomplishment, being able to communicate by the end of the hour long practice gave me great hope. 
I would have liked to think none of these mistakes were my fault, that the airplane sucked fifty points from my IQ or maybe I just wasn't speaking loudly enough. Of course, none of this was the case. I know that every misunderstanding directly correlated to a mistake on my part. Any laughs I might have cause my host brothers were far from intentional, being instead usually derived from accidental inappropriate questions or statements that seem to be a part of being a teenager abroad. Silence  seemed preferable - until  my host brothers began asking if the cat had taken my tongue. Communication is far from easy. 


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