Where I come from, almost everyone speaks only the one language. Learning another language is like learning what happened at the Battle of Vinegar Hill or how mountains are formed. Something you try in school and maybe make some progress in the exam, but never really use in your life. People who know more than one language do exist, but so do talented people who can play musical instruments or get chosen for a sports team. They’re admired for such a gift, but most people don’t have that ability or even try to learn it.
I used to fall into this group, I could only speak English and didn’t see the need for any other language. Yet now I find myself using three different languages every day. Although I spend my leisure time reading and watching videos in English, I live in France and work for an Esperanto association. So, my free time is in English, my work is in Esperanto and everything else is in French.
When I first arrived in Toulouse, I had hardly any French, so a friend had to act as a translator. So when I had an interview for an apartment, the landlady would ask questions in French and my friend would translate into Esperanto for me. This earned us a lot of strange looks, as people wondered what gibberish we were speaking. Six months later, I am still far more comfortable in Esperanto than French and still use it as a bridge language. I only learned Esperanto three years ago, but I’m practically as comfortable in it as I am in English. I still come across words I don’t know every now and again, but I understand the flow and rhythm of the language. I don’t need to translate from English, I can think directly in Esperanto (which until I started learning it, I didn’t know was even possible). I even blog in Esperanto. At the moment I’m reading a 60-year-old copy of Anne Frank’s diary, which Esperanto feels like the appropriate language.
My job is basically to promote Esperanto, so I help with information stands, courses, a radio show and online communication. A typical activity is to have a stand where we distribute information about the language (which most people have never heard of). We display books and CDs to show that Esperanto does in fact have its own culture and is a living language. A popular game to show how Esperanto works is to show them the number system. No one can deny that naŭdek naŭ (nine-ten-nine) is an easier way of saying ninety-nine than quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (four-twenty-ten-nine). My bad French is actually an advantage because it shows that you can use Esperanto as a primary language and that not everyone speaks French. I also act a human guinea pig that demonstrates how Esperanto works (often with my Romanian colleague to emphasise its internationalism).
The hardest part is not organising the events, but actually getting people to come. Not many people know the language or are bothered to put the effort into learning it. Every day is a struggle to convince people that Esperanto isn’t dead, fake or Spanish. I also have to go to a lot of meetings that last longer than eternity and by the time they end I’ve forgotten what life is like outside the room. The other volunteer says I complain too much and don’t like working, as if it’s a bad thing.
I’m part of the Service Civique a French government programme to support volunteering and teach French people about citizenship. This means I receive a grant from the French government, which is enough to pay my living costs. I have no idea why France is willing to pay for foreigners to volunteer in their country or teach them about French citizenship. Learning about laïcité is interesting for someone who comes from a country where alcohol is banned on Good Friday and the Catholic Church runs nearly all the schools. It wasn’t until after I arrived that I found out that the programme is technically part of the military, so I might get called up if Germany invades. Vive le France, I suppose?
I’m slowly picking up French and learning the idioms. Like how marche literally means walk, but also working, in order and that’s fine. So when I was shown my room, I had to figure out what the hell my landlady meant when she said my shower and fridge marche. They certainly weren’t walking anywhere. I have been introduced to the great pain au chocolat v chocolatine divide (the South of France proudly says chocolatine). I still haven’t wrapped my head around coucou, a word that sounds like baby talk but I’ve seen adults use to address each other.
Learning French isn’t too bad as there are many words in common with English. However, French words usually have very formal meanings in English, which might be why speaking French feels pretentious. When people are introduced they often respond with enchanté which makes me laugh as reminds me of enchanted, as if they are meeting a princess in a fairytale. Comprehend, facile, gratuity, soirée and avant-garde are all words in English, but only used if you want to impress someone. Funnily, the phrase I’m often asked to translate into English is bon appétit a phrase that is rarely translated. C’est la vie.
One way I practice my French is by watching films I’ve already seen before, dubbed into French with subtitles. This doesn’t always work, for example Angela’s Ashes can’t be watched in any language other than the original Limerick accent. Only the Irish accent can truly capture the misery of alcoholism, Catholicism and rain. In French even falling over in a drunken stupor while your family starves, sounds too sophisticated. Watching The Wind That Shakes The Barley was a better experience because French is well suited to describing rebellion and fighting the English, and rural 1920s Ireland did look surprisingly like rural 1920s France. I’m also practicing by reading La guerre des boutons which was made into Irish film that was my childhood favourite (I could relate to a story about boys from rival villages fighting for the sake of it).
One of the great difficulties with speaking another language is how much of an idiot you feel while doing so. It’s fine to study a textbook or watch a video in French, but it’s completely different to try and use it in ordinary life. Most ordinary French people don’t have the time or patience to speak slowly and clearly, nor do they want to spend half the day listening to me struggle to construct a sentence. So the conversations usually race along and go far over my head. So while I wish I could say I’ve been taking full advantage of my time in France and practicing French every day, in reality the prospect sometimes scares me and I take the easier route.
There have been a few culture shocks, like when I ordered a beer and received a tiny glass suitable for a small child. Apparently, you must specifically order a pint in a bar, otherwise they will assume you’re pregnant and give you an appropriately sized glass (ok, I exaggerate but what’s the point in ordering a beer that’s only a third or even a quarter of a litre?). I haven’t adapted to the French habit of kissing strangers (I’d only kiss my mother and my girlfriend), eating so much cheese (do we really need so many varieties when we have cheddar?) or drinking wine (which still feels pretentious to me).
Smoking is strangely popular and isn’t just the refuge of idiots and drunks as in Ireland. Coffee is a major pastime, although all Irish people know not to expect a decent cup of tea anywhere abroad (hence I brought a box with me in my suitcase). It turns out that French people don’t spend all their time in cafes wearing berets and discussing philosophy. People don’t even say Sacré bleu! (although I’ve tried to reintroduce it, so far without luck). Apparently the French Revolution ended a while ago, which explains why I haven’t seen any barricades on the streets (the closest was when someone set fire to a wheelie-bin during a protest)
Toulouse is far more diverse than the West of Ireland, which is as low a standard as saying it’s drier (it could hardly be wetter could it?). My walk to the kitchen has more diversity than is in my entire hometown. When I moved into my dormitories, it was several days before I met another white resident. The area I live has a large Arab population, which contrary to what Trump or some other fool might say, isn’t a problem. Apart from the occasional hijab, the fact everyone has a better tan (in fact I can’t really tell the native French and Arabs apart) and excellent public transport, it’s pretty much the same as living in Galway. Sure the hijab is just a different version of a Galway shawl (which is also a song about my hometown).
For some reason, most of my friends are Romanian (or Moldavian which apparently is practically the same) and I’m not quite sure how that happened. My view of a language is shaped by the context I hear it in. I mainly hear Romanian when my friend talks to her cat, so that’s the connotation of I have of that language. I even got to go to a wedding, although the bride had to leave the next morning because she had overstayed her visa and was technically an illegal immigrant. I had only known her for 3 months, which meant I was one of their oldest friends at the wedding (the maid of honour only knew her for 3 weeks). It took place in the town hall (a nice change from Ireland) after an Algerian wedding and followed by a Chinese couple and then an Indian procession.
If I’m going to talk about the languages I do speak, I should probably also mention the languages I don’t speak, among them Irish and Occitan. Esperantists are always interested in local minority languages and Occitan is the local language of Southern France. Its history is similar to most minority languages, once widely spoken, it was gradually pushed out by the language of the state. While never banned, it lacked prestige and was viewed as a peasant’s dialect. Its speakers are mainly elderly and live in rural villages. The only time I’ve seen it in Toulouse is on the metro and on signs. Learning French is enough of a challenge for me, I don’t have time to fail at learning such a small language.
I’m often asked if I speak Irish and like most Irish people the answer is sorta yes, mostly no. I studied it in school for 14 years as it’s a mandatory subject, but never spoke it outside the classroom. I never really had much interest in learning Irish. To myself and many of my friends, it was more of a museum piece than a living language, suitable for describing rain, misery and the crimes of the Sassenach (English) but not for modern life. It doesn’t help that most Irish literature is about poverty, emigration and death. Having to learn the tuiseal ginideach knocks any delusions of romanticism out of you. My sister went to a Gaelscoil (school where everything is conducted in Irish) but that didn’t interest me. The Gaelscoil was situated on the Bog Road (its name and description), the classrooms were portacabins and the principal was the son of the former chief of staff of the IRA. As a teenager, I thought only boggers and Shinners (die-hard nationalists) spoke Irish.
My view has changed somewhat since then and I even found a club that practices speaking Irish in Toulouse (although I have no idea why it exists). It is in a sense, my language, even if I can’t speak it. Maybe one day I will learn, because someone has to if we want to keep it alive. Although I do subscribe to the common attitude among Irish people towards the language, that of liking the idea of the language but unwilling to do anything to actually support it.
Last but not least, there’s English. As you can tell by the fact that I wrote this in English (although I might translate it to Esperanto if I have time), its still my main language. I still read the news, watch TV, browse the internet etc in English. Most people have little or no English so I can’t expect everyone to speak the language that suits me. But if I only wanted to use English I would have stayed at home.