My Life In 3 Languages

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.

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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).

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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).

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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).

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The mná of Galway were wearing hijabs before it was cool

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.

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11 thoughts on “My Life In 3 Languages”

  1. Seeing as you’re obviously interested in languages perhaps you could explain this mystery, since you brought to topic up. How could anyone with a normal brain study a language for 14 years (!!!) and not be able to speak it? After all you have to do something whilst you’re waiting for the rain to stop 😉

    1. Sure it’s taught in school but there’s plenty of subjects taught that the students don’t pay attention to. When you went to high school did everyone become fluent after studying a language for a few years? Or could they only say a few basic phrases that they never used outside the classroom?

      1. Yes, I understand that, but then again languages are not quite like academic subjects, even though they have often been presented that way. Language learning is mostly about forming habits based on repetition and a bit of generalisation. It is I would say closer to maths or gymnastics than to say history or geography or chemistry etc.

        In the UK, back in the day, you needed at least O-grade/O-level French* to get into all but a handful of universities. So everyone got French between ages 11-16. I enjoyed the first year, the teacher was to say the least a bit eccentric, used a less boring than usual textbook etc. After than it all became ‘grammatical’ and I lost interest, and in fact never completed the final year of study nor took the exam. By then I had a sort of formless distaste for French, France, the French and all their works. (Could this be why so many English people seem to be mild xenophobes?)

        However when several years later as a research student, I needed to access some original papers in French, I found I knew enough of the basics to make sense of the text, and improved from there on. But then came another downside. The French research group had recently decided that even original papers were to be published in English, and in addition when I met some of them in person, I was getting quite keen on French by then, they refused outright to speak French to me, so it was only useful on a couple of occasions when I happened to know the French for something where the other person didn’t know the English term.

        So anyway, two points I suppose :
        1. Even after one year of interesting School French and three and a bit more of boring French, I somehow retained enough of the language to pick up where I’d left off without a teacher or any other personal contact;
        2. Interest and use depend I’d say on _usefulness_, although there can be other motivations, especially in the case of a so-called “heritage languge”.

        So I hope that helps explain my bafflement as to why after as you say 14 years (Jee banee mee!) of study, three times as much as my School French, your people apparently can’t or won’t speak their own tongue. Fourteen Years FFS!!! Surely something, in fact rather a lot, must rub off over such a long period, simply from exposure and repetition. Or do you have some kind of selective deafness (but I can’t believe the Irish are a breed apart, not in that sense at least — lol!)

        It was simply the length of time, the years of study, that shocked me …


        *Technically any foreign language, but in practise French was all that was widely taught.

        1. I think you misunderstood what I said. It isn’t that after 14 years I’m unable to speak a single word. I can say basic phrases and if I were to read a text I could recognise some words. So my level is not zero, like most Irish people, it’s just low. I would compare it to most people’s knowledge of a foreign language after high school (in your case French).

          So yes, some has rubbed off, but very little. I wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation past a basic introduction. This is what I mean when I say I can’t speak Irish.

          1. Well fair enough, mo chara 🙂 I can’t argue with your experience. But if most folk only reach the equivalent of “high school French” after ***17 years!!!***, as opposed to say 4-6 yrs, then something must be badly wrong with the system. Apart from anything else, what a waste of everyone’s time (at best), not to mention the possible negative effects on pupils’ attitudes. Is the whole business still ideology driven?
            Do you have any insight from your esperantist perspective, since in its own way E. is as much a minority language as Gaeilge?
            The _gaelscolanna_, long with their equivalent for other minority languages, are often held up as the solution to language loss. Seeing as your sister was a test-case, what do you reckon?

            1. I’m afraid I don’t really have any great insight. People love to blame the education system, but the problem is that students don’t want to learn and don’t use it. No reform to how its taught will change that. The gaelscoileanna seem to be pretty good and my sister left being able to fluently speak Irish, so it seems that people can learn if they have a use for the language.

              Just to be clear, people don’t study for 17 years, only about 12-14 years. Obviously in primary school the children only learn a small amount and the classes aren’t intensive.

              1. Which to me seems totally arse-backwards. At primary they need something close to part-time immersion. At that age kids soak up language like sponges, and hopefully haven’t had time to develop an ‘attitude’ (unless they somehow get it from their teachers etc.) and just take things as they find them.

  2. As a speaker of Welsh and Esperanto, I found this article fascinating. I’m afraid that the sad truth is, Marconatrix, that the same situation applies in Wales. There are people who have 11 years of Welsh lessons and remain untouched by them. Worse still, there are people who go through Welsh-language schools for 11 years and do not speak the language. The young woman who cuts my hair in Llandudno attended Welsh-medium schools in Bangor, but responds to my “Sut dach chi heddiw?” with “I’m good, thanks.”

    A positive attitude is a key to successful language learning. There are people like Y Kiwi Cymraeg ( See http://www.kiwicymraeg.com/ ) who arrive in Wales, learn the language and take an active part in the Welsh-speaking community. There are people who opt out as soon as they can.

    1. There are two separate questions here. Yours isn’t about ability but willingness to use the language in question. It’s clear from her response that your hairdresser understood your ‘How are you?’ So why not a ‘Da iawn, dioch!’ or the local equivalent? No doubt there are ponderous academic tomes out there about all of this, but it seems an especially British/Irish disease. There are other places where most people are very fluent in English but still prefer to speak their local language, even if it has relatively few speakers, whenever they can.

      There must be many stories like yours, believe it or not this happened to me just two days ago. I was in Looe/Logh Cornwall/Kernow and was surprised to see a boy wearing a t-shirt with the legend “Pleidiol wyf fi i’m gwlad”. I must have been feeling more extrovert than usual because I asked out loud, “Dach chi’n siarad Cymrâg?”, to which after a pause one of the parents replied, “He doesn’t speak it”. Wel, dwi wedi gwneud yng ngorau glas 🙂

  3. Great take on life between languages, Robert- always interesting to get insight into others’ experiences with it.

    Bonne chance mastering the French!

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