Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Ignore the man behind the dog

Actually, that pic is just parked there for a minute so I can move it to my Mac (the laptop to my right in the pic), where I have Photoshop. I made the mistake of uploading it to the hard drive on my PC, and I really need to reduce its size a bit and crop some of the periphery so I can use it up in the corner the way Amerloc uses the one of himself behind the wheel of his pickup.

I talked at some length in my last post about the educational system in Belgium, yet managed to leave out probably as much as I told. I'm not going to try to fill all the gaps tonight, but I do have a story from that year that I'd like to share, by way of exemplifying how thoroughly immersive the experience was:

One rainy late-January/early February afternoon, a good friend and I went to the local indoor ice-rink and skated for a couple of hours. When we left the rink to walk home, night had fallen and the rain had quickened. We followed the road along the river through the city, one moment cursing the rain and the next marveling at the way it sparkled in the streetlights and danced in the street. After a couple of blocks, a sedan pulled to the curb alongside us, windshield wipers slapping frantically, and the driver got out, some urgency plain in his eyes: the look of a man trying to find an address in a strange city on a night of poor visibility.

He spoke, and neither of us understood a word he said, but both recognized it as probably German. She asked if he spoke French. He said, "No."

Having studied Dutch for all of a semester and knowing Dutch to be related to German, I asked if he spoke Dutch, and was tremendously relieved when he answered in the negative. I could, perhaps, have recited the dialogue about finding the post office, but really couldn't have helped him much beyond that.

Taking the initiative away from a couple of soggy teenagers, he asked if either of us spoke English. I gave my friend a look that today would be accompanied by an eye-roll and a resounding, "Duh!," then turned to him and said, "Yes, I speak English."

So he asked me the questions in what was possibly his third language, I translated them to her in my second language (though I was at that point certainly mentally wired to French as my first), she gave me the answers, and I relayed them to him in my nominal first language.

I intended to stop there, but I see in the story a couple of things that bear emphasis.

First, no one has created a language acquisition system that out-performs immersion. I wasn't an American speaking French; I was a French-speaking American.

Second, I've used the terminology that I came to associate with academic language study in Europe. No one spoke of "native" languages or "foreign" languages. Everyone had a first and a second language in which they could operate with relative ease (most of a decade of instruction will do that, especially with real-life opportunities to practice only a few kilometers away). And everyone had another language or two in which they could survive when necessary - when they couldn't find their way in a strange city on a dark, rainy night.

Français/French Deutsch/German Italiano/Italian Português/Portuguese Español/Spanish 日本語/Japanese 한국어/Korean 中文(简体)/Chinese Simplified Tagalog/Filipino


Blogger anybody said...

My father was in the Navy, and we lived in Sicily for three years. While I attended a DODS-EUR school, I understand the experiences you describe about living in Belgium. Those multi-lingual communication interactions are very affirming with regards to feeling competent within a culture.

At my school, our department is "world languages".

10:07 PM  

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