One of my neighbors is an elderly French woman — Cecile — who has lived in the US for most of her adult life. Whenever we run into each other we chat for a bit, and over time I’ve learned a little about her life story. I know she grew up poor in the countryside outside of Paris with her mom and sister. I know that when she arrived in the US some fifty-five years ago she spoke no English. She moved here to join her husband who had arrived before her for work and the two had a young daughter. She has told me many times of the isolation she experienced during the first couple of years, and how she knew that learning English would be crucial if she was ever going to feel settled in her new country.
When Cecile moved, there were no online language programs or apps, there were no social networks or groups to join. Going to school wasn’t an option as she was taking care of their daughter. Cecile always smiles when she tells me how she spent the early years pointing and gesturing more than anything else — it was how she communicated when she went to the store, or on the bus, or while meeting other moms at the park with her daughter. She slowly picked up the language, and as she learned English she started to make friends and build a community.
When I think about the isolation and hardships that come with not knowing the local language, I am grateful that I had a good grasp of English before moving here. Not only was I able to understand and make myself understood I could also take care of paperwork, make phone calls, deal with tradespeople and do all those everyday things that we normally don’t give a second thought to. It wasn’t always easy and I experienced my fair share of misunderstandings, but on the whole, I could communicate without impediment.
Because I knew the language I could go to school and start taking classes to add some relevant skills to my field of work. This was a great way to gain confidence and to start building a network of connections. Because I knew the language I could sit at a cafe, book in hand, eavesdropping on the people around me, picking up cultural references and bits and pieces about life in my new country. I learned a lot about my surroundings this way — I think it was invaluable in terms of getting acclimated.
It’s worth noting that speaking the language is one thing and understanding the culture is another. Figuring out how a society works and why people do what they do takes time. However, it’s much easier if you have some language skills. Still, there are some things you might never understand, no matter how hard you try — like baseball for example. I know it’s America’s national pastime, but to me, the game is just a long wait for something to happen. I have tried to get its appeal, but twenty-five years later, I’m still a bit puzzled…
As someone living abroad, I would think that the social benefits of learning the local language alone would be motivation to get at least some basic skills. In addition, there are all sorts of cognitive benefits. Learning a second language is actually good for the human brain — it purportedly improves memory, enhances creativity and strengthens your ability to problem solve. And if that’s not enough, there is the fact that you just have more language to choose from — as in more words and expressions at your disposal. You can pick what you feel works best in a given situation. For example, I almost always use the Swedish word “gurka” instead of cucumber (unless I have to make myself understood at a store), it’s an easy word to say and cucumber is, well, cumbersome…
The one thing I never learned to do well is swearing. I just feel silly when I hear myself swear in English — it sounds fake and feels unnatural. So I don’t really do it. I suppose you can count that as yet another benefit!
By: Felicia Shermis