Saturday, May 23, 2015

On Being A Second Language Learner


I say that because currently I am in Quebec! I am here because I'm doing a 5 week French immersion program that the government provides bursaries to Canadian students for. (If you're interested, you can find more information at In the program, you go and stay at a university (or with a host family if you want), take classes, and participate in French activities and outings around the city. We also are required to try to speak French all the time. And the program I'm in in Quebec City, you get warnings if you get caught speaking English, which can lead to you being kicked out of the program. It makes sense, since the government is paying for you to be here to learn French.

Anyway, as I've been learning, I've learned a lot of things about being a second language learner, so I thought I'd share them with you.

1. It is EXHAUSTING. It is really hard to speak a language that is not my mother tongue all the time. It takes extra effort to concentrate on understanding people, and it takes a lot of effort to be able to find the right way to say something. It's so much easier just to slip back into English. I now understand why one of my friends who was learning language would always be falling asleep in the car. He was just exhausted from trying so hard to keep up with everyone!

2. I probably sound stupid, even though I'm not. I know I'm using the wrong tenses or words or orders of words all the time, but I'm just trying to do my best to communicate in the best way I can. I do know how to express complex ideas and carry on interesting discussion, just not in French.

3. I feel like it is impossible to truly get to know me if you only speak French with me. At times when I would talk or add to the discussion in English, I don't in French because I don't know how to say certain things, it would just take way too long for me to say it, or I didn't fully understand what was said in the first place. I almost feel like there is this wall of fog separating me and francophones. I can kind of see through the fog, but only enough to understand general ideas and not every word. My understanding of others isn't complete enough to have the wall break down. 

4. You can never become a native speaker. I know this should be obvious, but I didn't quite realize it before. I never realized how even if you become fluent and capable in another language, you will probably still have an accent, and you'll just be missing essential knowledge about the other language that native speakers just take for granted. When I reflect on how I speak and use English, there are so many things I do that I don't realize or that would be impossible or at least really difficult to learn.

5. It is necessary to get outside the classroom. There are so many things you learn "sur la terrain" (on the ground) that you can't or won't learn in a classroom. Also, writing and being able to read only get you so far. There's slang, expressions and ways of speaking that you'll only learn by talking with someone who speaks that language.

6. While you can never get on the level of native speakers, if you have people around you that are willing to help teach you and support you in your learning and speaking and who don't make fun of you (too much) when you make mistakes, then you can learn another language!

So, those are just some things I've realized, and also help me to empathize with my friends whose mother tongue is not English. I definitely understand their experience a bit better now. I think I'm very spoiled as an anglophone, because most people in the world speak English, I could get away with only speaking English my entire life. However, I think it's almost a conceited way to go through life, expecting and wanting everyone to speak English just so it's easier for you. Not that I think that way, but I know there are some people who do, even people whose mother tongue isn't English. I wish that English hadn't taken over the world, because I think other languages are important and should be conserved and protected. Anyway, that's a big part of the reason why I want to improve my French, because I think it's important to learn other languages and the culture that goes with it.

What languages do you know? How have you found it learning another language?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Book Faeries

 I believe it started when my 19-year-old brother said that he could finish absolutely any book. Offhandedly I said, "What about one of my YA romances?" And he shrugged in his typical style and said sure. So half as a joke, half knowing he would actually read it, I put my copy of Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins on his pillow. And he read it. Despite being infuriatingly lazy and interested in math instead of writing, my brother has a few redeeming qualities. Such as, he reads quite widely and doesn't feel any shame about toting my bright blue, cutesy copy of Anna and the French Kiss around. Of course this did attract attention, so my brother explained to people inquiring how I'd challenged him that he wouldn't be able to finish the book. While he was reading it, my parents scoffed and said, "I bet I could give him a book he couldn't finish."

He did finish Anna and the French Kiss, and while he said that it was "not as bad as I thought it would be", he didn't really enjoy it, which is understandable given his interests. I like to think that the fact that it wasn't as annoying as he'd thought is a testament to Stephanie Perkin's writing skill, rather than my inability to give my brother a book he couldn't finish.

My little brother. Photo Credit: Alan Sherlock
Anyway, somehow it got to the point that we now have a cycle where each member of my family (except my sister) takes turns giving my brother a book to read. It went from giving my brother books he might not be able to finish, to just giving him books we liked and wanted him to read. It's quite enjoyable on both sides. My brother likes it because he gets a stream of books literally handed to him that have gone through an excellent filtering process. He never really has to read a horrible book, because they've already been screened by us. And my parents and I get to make my brother read books that we like and want other people to read. (Note: we did ask my sister if she wanted to be included in the cycle, but the only recommendation she ever had was Lemonade Mouth).

So after my brother finished Anna and the French Kiss, my dad gave him Men of Mathematics by E.T. Bell. I tried to interview my brother about what he thought of each of the books he's been given so far, but something to know about my brother is that he doesn't really talk a lot (whether it's because he actually has nothing to say or is just trying to annoy me is undetermined). So he said Men of Mathematics was "good" and when I asked him if he learned anything he said he "learned math".

After the math book, my brother was given The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot by my mom. This he also said was "good", and that the one thing he'll remember forever from this book is that it is weird that people ship cells in the mail. 

Then it was my turn again, so I gave him Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. He said it was good. When I tried to get him to elaborate on why it was good, he just said it was good because of "everything".

Dad's turn next, which meant back to non-fiction. He gave my brother Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen Jay Gould. My brother said it was good, and one thing he learned was that there is a type of frog that is birthed by projectile vomiting. The egg grows in it's stomach and then it vomits it out, and it happened so fast that it took awhile for scientists to figure out what was actually going on. 

Mom's turn again, and she gave him The Power of the Powerless by Christopher de Vinck. Our sister has Down syndrome, so disability rights is something I think everyone in my family feels strongly about. My brother made a connection between some of the talk in this book about kids being put into institutions, and the images of insane asylums that are presented at the beginning and end of the movie Amadeus.

Then it was back to me again, so I gave him The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which he actually just finished. I found this book really fascinating and it made me think about so many different things, which is why I gave it to my brother to read. One of his comments was that he thought it was weird and unrealistic that the speech of various characters was very similar most of the time. He also commented that the book shows how easy it is to get away with murder, although it's easy in one way and hard in another. I was also talking about how the horror of the whole thing had caught me off guard when I read it, and he said that the way it's told, it seems very nonchalant about the horror. 

Then when he finishes The Secret History, it's my dad's turn, and we continue! My brother is pretty lucky that he has his own personal book faeries to pick out and give him books to read without him having to lift a finger. Perhaps we are only enabling his laziness, but it sure is fun. I love recommending books to people, and my brother is the perfect person to recommend books to because you know he'll read it, as long as you give it to him. It's also fun for us because then he gets to share in a little part of our interests and our worlds. We are connecting ourselves to each other, through our favourite books. Maybe soon we'll even have a family book club. Who knows? 

My brother isn't engaged in the online writing community, because his interests are more on the side of science and mathematics, so I can't plug him in that way. But he's actually in university for computer science, and has even made a couple of apps for android, which you can find and download here

Have a great day!


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