I was over the moon when I found out we were moving to Belgium. I had grand plans of traveling all over Europe, learning to prepare the finest European cuisine, sipping coffee in quaint cafes and of course, learning to speak French. I have always wanted to speak another language so when I found out that Marc’s employer was also providing me with my own personal French tutor I was ecstatic. It was a dream come true…almost.
Arriving in Belgium I quickly realized I could get by pretty well with my native language of English. It wasn’t perfect by any means but certainly passable. I could grocery shop using my translation app on my phone. I could ask for a table at a restaurant by holding up a few fingers. I could catch a taxi home by showing the driver my address on the map. When all else failed, I could ask ever so quietly in my butchered French “Parlez-vous anglais” (Do you speak English?) and the gracious soul I was speaking with would break into English and apologize for their poor pronunciation. With sweat dripping from my palms and my heart racing I would thank them and assure them that their English was much better than my French.
As I settled into my new home in Belgium, life got in the way. Between helping my kids get adjusted, traveling to foreign lands, exploring our new city and trying to plug into our new community, my French lessons were put on the back burner. After all, I was able to get by pretty well with my English and a few fancy French words, and flying to Italy for the day was much more fun than a French lesson. Life would have certainly been easier if I knew the language but things were going okay.
Four months into living in Europe I finally decided to schedule my first French lesson. I was picking up a few words and was successfully reading menus and grocery store labels without my translation app. It was time to give up a few long lunches with friends and buckle down to realize my dream of learning a second language.
My tutor arrived and quickly opened up the workbook to begin. He would ask me a few questions in French of which I understood NOTHING! I could read the workbook fairly well but when he spoke the words I could not follow him. He sounded like the teacher on Charlie Brown and I looked at him like a deer in headlights, BLANK. I was shocked that after hearing french every day for four months that I had no ability to understand what he was saying. These painful 2-hour sessions continued weekly for several months. It got to the point that I would dread the days when I had lessons. Nothing was clicking for me. We would always start with a review and it was as if I was learning it for the first time. Needless to say, I think my French Tutor was dreading our sessions just as much as me.
After several months of unsuccessful lessons, I QUIT! I just couldn’t do it. I wondered how so many Europeans I knew could speak 3, 4 and 5 languages. I was in awe of how people could seamlessly move between English and French and Dutch. I decided to give up my dream of speaking French and traded it in for sweaty palms, rapid heart rate and translation apps.
Then one day I had to call the Electricity Company. I had a bill that I needed to ask questions about before I paid it. After putting off the phone call for days (maybe weeks), I reluctantly dialed the number praying that I would get someone on the other end of the line that could speak English. I was overjoyed when I heard this simple phrase “Press 3 for English.” What? Did I hear that correctly? My heart rate slowed, my clenched jaw loosened. My prayers had been answered! I was in the clear.
The operator answered with the typical “how can I help you?” I began asking my questions and all was going well until I asked her a question that she didn’t know the answer to. She instructed me that I would need to speak to a manager and then promptly transferred me.
Manager: Francais or Netherlanders?
Me: I’m sorry, but I only speak English.
Manager: Francais or Netherlanders?
Me: Ma’am, I don’t expect you to speak English but since you had an English option on your customer service line I was hoping to speak to someone in English.
Manager: (In English) You are in my country. You speak Francais or Netherlanders.
Me: Ma’am, since you are able to speak English could please just help me with one question? I am just trying to pay my bill. I have not lived here for long and I only speak English.
Manager: If you can’t speak Francais or Netherlanders you can call back with a translator.
Me: But please….
Manager: You are in my country. (hangs up)
I WAS LIVID! They had an English option on their phone line and she spoke English. I was trying to give them the money I owed them. Why did she have to be so mean? Why did she need to make me feel so stupid? Doesn’t she know I tried to learn French? If she only knew how much I would love to communicate with her in French. If she only knew how much anxiety I experienced daily as a result of not being able to communicate with those around me. If she could have just shown me a little kindness.
After stewing in my anger for a bit and calling my three closest friends to recount every last detail, I began to think about what it is like for immigrants in the US that don’t speak English. My anger turned to sadness and empathy. If you have immigrated to the US and don’t speak English, there is a strong possibility that you do not work in a professional and well paying field (of course this is a generalization). If you are coming to the US because of a career opportunity, you have probably mastered the English language. So that leaves the number of people who have come to our country without a vast amount of resources. Maybe they are refugees fleeing persecution, maybe they are trying to realize the American Dream and do better for their family. Maybe they have moved to be with family. Maybe they are Expats just like me.
Expats just like me. I had all the time and resources I needed to learn French. I didn’t have a job so my time was unlimited. I had a free tutor at my disposal. I was around the French language all day. With all the opportunities I had, I was still unsuccessful at learning the language. I felt so much empathy for people living in the US who work long days, maybe work multiple jobs, have no access to a tutor or language lessons. They most likely never encounter a person at the grocery store who speaks their language and can help them out. And yet in this country the expectation is that everyone speaks English.
If you yourself only speak one language, I ask you to take a minute to think about what it may be like living in a country where you can’t understand a thing. Take a minute to think about how challenging it might be to learn another language. Think about how you would find the hundreds of dollars a month it would cost to hire a tutor or take classes. Think about finding the time to take lessons among your obligations of work and family. Think about the hours of studying it would require. Then think about how difficult it would be to navigate your daily life. To read traffic signs, to go the grocery store, to make a doctors appointment, to make a friend.
I realized that day that while language is certainly a barrier, it is not insurmountable. There is a simple language that humanity has in common. It crosses gender, and culture and geographic lines. It’s spoken by toddlers and seniors and everyone in between. It’s simple to learn and even simpler to speak. It’s the universal language of KINDNESS.
I’m so thankful for my time in Europe. I absolutely loved traveling and hearing the beautiful languages as I moved across borders. I loved picking my kids up from a school that educated children from over 80 different countries. I loved sitting down for a cup of coffee and hearing French, Italian and German all within a few tables. My life is certainly richer because of it. What I am most grateful for though, are the many people I encountered along the way, that I approached with sweaty palms and racing heart, and they opened up their hearts and mouths and spoke kindness.
Au Revoir, Vaarwel, Arrivederci, Adios,