I speak several foreign languages. Thanks to my teachers at good old Morant Bay High School in St. Thomas, Jamaica, who gave me the start. French is one that I learned. I am fully fluent today, to the point where I switch registers easily, depending on the need, moving from standard to the very informal. While at university in France, a teacher, handing me back a piece of homework, asked me, “Have you ever thought about becoming a diplomat?” Strange question, I thought. “Why?” I asked. Because your French is so élévé,” she replied. My French was at a high standard. I guess it must have been because it was “book French” that I had learned in Jamaica. Very formal French. Though grammatically correct, no one used that level of French in everyday communication, even for school assignments or in the classroom. So ironic, though, that the lowest mark in my academic life was in my first French exam. Got a whopping 17 out of 100! Why do I still remember it so well?
I did a combination of arts and sciences throughout high school, up to ‘O levels’ in Fifth Form. But, somehow, I ended up with languages for ‘A levels’ in Sixth Form. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t sure of a career path but knew I wanted to go on to university. ‘A levels’ were one of the routes to get there, and I just picked 3 subjects. Come university, I found myself doing the then-famous Option 42 in the arts and general studies faculty. Students following that stream of studies were labeled as ‘bastard social science students” doing arts but adding one or two courses in sociology, economics or political science. We, those bastards, wanted to give ourselves the chance for a career beyond teaching. Language students were destined to become teachers. So, we were told. Not that such a noble profession was not upstanding or outstanding. But having a broad-based background could open the doors to a wider range of careers to choose from.
Studying languages as part of my formal academics has been one of the best things in my life. Languages have opened many doors for me professionally, academically, and personally. Professionally, they helped launch my career in international business. Academically, they propelled me towards my doctorate in international business administration. Personally, wow, they’ve provided me with the opportunity to live in places outside of Jamaica and have served as a conduit for gaining knowledge about the world and how it works. So, languages are immeasurably valuable in life.
The journey towards mastery of a foreign language can be an interesting one. At least it has been for me. In several ways, like the bonus, practical knowledge you acquire from the learning aids. Culture is a reference point of language, because language is shaped by the culture surrounding it. And so, learning a language is made easier by also learning about the culture of its native speakers. Starting in high school, I had to watch movies, participate in plays, read novels and newspapers and listen to music in the languages I was learning, all for total immersion. So, along the way, I learned quite a few things about different peoples of the world through such immersion.
With such depth of learning through immersion, you end up not just understanding and speaking the language, you end up feeling it as well. And that is when you know you’ve mastered it. There are French words I know whose English equivalence I cannot find, as the emotions transmitted by the French version cannot be translated! I remember hearing French bad words being used in a real cussing match for the first time while at university in France. I heard the words but, to me, they were mere words, with no effect. Not like the Jamaican bad words I was so acculturated to. Today, all that is different. I hear the same words I heard for the first time in France years ago and I cringe! I feel them! I feel what they convey! I dare not even whisper them!
Part of immersion in language learning is practice. Practice, practice, practice! No use in not capitalizing on immersion opportunities to practice. In any case, that is the whole purpose of immersion. On arrival in Paris from Jamaica, via a connection in London, my luggage was nowhere to be found. Not sure if it had been left back in Kingston, or if it hadn’t made the connection in London. Lost luggage counter of Air France. Dread. No time to be practicing my French as this was serious. “Excuse me, do you speak English?” “Non.” Oh, shucks, now I was forced to try out my French in, of all places, France! The real McCoy! Would it work in a real environment? As I spoke to the service rep, I was mentally flipping through my French grammar book and the dictionary at the back. Flipping had to be one step ahead of the speaking to make sure I said the right things. Oh, it gave me a headache. But whatever I did seemed to have worked! Got my luggage delivered at the hostel later that night, and in time to catch my train down to my university town, Grenoble. That was October. By December, it dawned on me I was understanding French easily, and speaking it effortlessly! Passive knowledge made active through engagement. The power of immersion and practice.
There is fun along the way to foreign language acquisition. Making mistakes and laughing at how funny they are. And at the effect they have on the people who point out the errors of your ways – rather – of your words. But this is one good way of learning. Mistakes make great lessons. Some are so egregious that you never make them again! Lightning does not strike twice in the same place, and so it is with such faux pas. And don’t dread making them, as the folk who point them out to you usually see them as good humor, knowing that you are learning. Though they may be shocking, however, they can be downright funny! Take for instance, the Spanish word embarasada. A fellow student told a guy from Latin America who invited her to dance with him at a party, in her best Spanish, that she didn’t want to, as she was embarasada. She felt it rather strange when he stopped and asked her if she was okay and if she wanted to sit down for a while. False friend! No, not the guy, the word embarasada. For while my friend thought she was telling him she was embarrassed, she was actually telling him she was pregnant.
Not to be outdone by Spanish, French also has its share of false friends. Thinking she was telling a potential customer that a product was good because it contained no preservative, my Jamaican friend in Paris, in reality, told the customer the product had no condom! The French word préservatif looks like the English word “preservative”, but actually means “condom”. Well, a condom is a kind of preservative anyway, so, what’s the big deal, you might ask. Same difference. And how about another Jamaican friend who moved to Paris without speaking a lick of French (today she is a teacher there!). The more she felt comfortable with the language, the more she ventured into using it: She went out to a restaurant with friends one evening and decided to order in French. Why not, this was her reason for learning the language. She ordered steak, and the waiter asked how she would like it. “Medium well,” she told him in French. Or so she thought. She was puzzled when he followed up with “You can be sure, madame, that all our steaks are served naked. No hair!” She knew something was wrong. She should have stuck to English, she felt. The French expression for medium well is à point, and naked is à poil. Well, the pronunciation of both sounds somewhat similar, especially to the untrained ear! You can guess which one my friend chose.
Assuming the person standing next to you or in earshot doesn’t speak a particular foreign language is an absolute no-no. Never make that cardinal mistake. For you may end up being embarrassed to the core. If you are saying something nice, maybe you will escape wrath. Something not nice may earn you the wrath. On bus #22 from town back to campus at university in France, some guys from Senegal seated behind a beautiful Caucasian girl started, to my subsequent understanding, to verbally undress her and take her to bed. In Wolof. Wolof is one of the most common languages spoken in Senegal. An African country. Africa, synonymous with black people. Surely this girl was European. The girl got off at one of the stops before the final turn to get to the campus. As she exited, she turned around, and uttered some words in a language that was not French. It was Wolof! She was Caucasian but grew up in Senegal! By their reaction, she apparently let them have it!
Africa. Excitement in anticipation. My first visit. I spent a few days in Accra and then flew to Abidjan. Nigerian Airways. Routine flight, except for the women who got up out of their seats and started staggering up the aisle, luggage on their heads, before the plane came to a full stop. Strange. A friend from Burkina Faso was to meet me at the airport, and we would take the train from Abidjan to Bobo Dioulasso for a week. Well, no friend waiting for me after I exited the airport. One hour. Two hours. A guy approached me, asking me, in French, if I needed a taxi. “Am sorry, I don’t speak French,” I lied to him, in English. Just wasn’t in the mood for a conversation. The lie was my escape route. But he blocked my escape. He beckoned to who apparently was a friend of his, to come across. Turned out the friend was Ghanaian; an English speaker like me. Annoying questions followed, in English, with staccato answers from me. “Is this your first time here?” “Yes.” “Do you know where you are going to?” “No.” “Do you have the telephone number of someone to call?” “No.” Ghanaian friend turned to Ivorian friend and dissed me in French: “How stupid this guy is. This is his first time in Africa. He’s been standing here for a while. He doesn’t have the address of where he is going to, nor does he have a telephone number of someone to call. How stupid can someone be!” I stood right there, listened to their conversation and did not even wince. Just was not in the mood to let them know, in my best French, where they should go! Somewhere glowingly hot! Years after, I thought to myself I should have!
Languages have opened many doors for me, and have been the avenue for discovery, fun, laughter, education, socializing. Thanks to my teachers at Morant Bay High School who gave me the start! Senor Marte, Mrs. Bubb-Clarke, Mr. and Mrs. Bernard, Mrs. Parkins, Mr. Hard, and Miss Young.