Unlike most of the other study abroad sites, I did not have to be well- versed in a completely new language upon entering a different country. Even though many of the Brits here will scoff and argue that we speak “American” and they speak “English”, which I guess is true. However, there are certain phrases and local lingo that I’ve had to learn to pick up on while I’m here. I also have found that in a setting of all Londoners, it’s hard to follow along in conversation because they speak very quickly and I don’t necessarily pick up on all the little, British ‘wittisms’. For instance, I was at a concert with a co-worker from my internship, and she had invited some of her friends along to the show as well. It was entertaining to listen to them talk and get a sense for the local ‘hipster’ scene (yes, there definitely is one) – but, I had the hardest time following along with what they were saying. Given, the setting was quite loud, and I’m fairly tall, but some of the local speak just did not translate well.
I also have found it hilarious to compare different food habits, and vernacular with the people I’ve befriended from London. I was at lunch the other day when a friend ordered ‘a jacket potato with beans and cheese’. I didn’t quite understand what she meant by ‘jacket potato’ AND I normally only eat beans and cheese together when I eat Mexican food...? It turns out it’s quite a normal lunch meal to have a baked potato with baked beans and cheese on top (pictured above), or tuna and mayo…which seemed so odd to me! But then again, who I am to judge one food culture compared to another. It was just a certain meal I wasn’t at all accustomed to.
Usually, when traveling to a different country I find myself not knowing anyone, so I’m timid when it comes to asking questions about the language and about different words etc. But I’ve been lucky enough to become good friends with some London people through my internship. One girl in particular, whom I’ve become pretty close with, we always try to imitate each other’s accents because we both wish we talked like the other. We’ll have one person say a phrase and the other try to repeat it… unfortunately it seems like when my friend always impersonates my “American” accent it comes off very valley girl-ish, which is pretty horrifying. It’s a process, but we’re working on it.
Most people in Paris will pick up on the American accent straight away and will then continue on speaking to you in English. However, if you do happen to have to ask "parlez vous anglais" and they happen to respond with a short "Non", it usually comes out sounding a little bit rude. And their eyes usually say, "what a stupid question. Why would I, a Parisian, speak English?". However, this attitude usually quickly drops as long as I continue to say what I can in French and keep a smile going. But like I said, most speak English and even more seem to actually be impressed by my horrific attempt at their language. They really do appreciate the effort!
After being here for nearly a month I flew up to Newcastle, England for my best friend's birthday. Her and I had been talking for nearly a year about when I would finally be able to see where she goes to university and even more so recently that she'd planned a house party for her 21st. In all this anticipation I never once thought of what it might be like to return to speaking English after being in Paris for a few weeks. There is most definitely something to be said for not having to plan out conversations with cashiers, neighbors, even refilling my phone minutes is quiet the task. We were heading out find Eliza a costume for her party when she realized she wasn't sure which way exactly the costume shop was. Without thinking, she turned to a man passing us on the busy street and asked the question. There was no mumbling or stumbling over words, no award exchange of hand gestures, just quick and easy. An hour later I told the barista at Starbucks "merci, bonne journée!" as she handed me my order... I turned red and looked away before catching her reaction.
I didn't actually miss the ease which comes with being fluent in the local language until escaping to England for a couple days. I returned to Paris with more determination than ever. I must speak this language! I had forgotten just how good it feels to be able to communicate with strangers so freely. As much as Paris has begun to truly feel like a home away from home, it wasn't until returning from a weekend away that I realized for a place to truly be a home to me I need to be able to say what's on my mind without too much thought going into the translation of my thoughts from English.
It is not just words that can be confusing in a new place. Often daily activities or tools that are dramatically different from what we expect can throw us for a loop. “In the more fugitive, trivial association of the word exotic, the charm of a foreign place arises from the simple idea of novelty and change – from finding camels where at home there are horses, for example… “ (De Botton, 193). I feel that for Flaubert this feeling of the exotic was often positive but for me there have been a number of times that such “exoticisms” have been negative, throwing me into a spiral of culture shock. This quotation can be summed up in a Chinese context each time one opens a Chinese public toilet stall and is met with a porcelain hole in the ground with little grooves on the sides for one’s feet. There is often no toilet paper (you are required to tote around your own) and since Chinese plumbing is weak and crumbling you must put your used toilet paper into a small trash can next to the “squatty potty” as we lovingly call it. This means that most public bathrooms stink to high heaven and are just generally filthy. Imagine walking into a fancy hotel lobby or casual bar, asking where the bathroom is, opening the stall door just to see a large white hole in the ground on a raised platform staring back at you. The first few times you are perplexed and after that it is just annoying or makes you chuckle.
One of the first days of French class, our teacher was teaching us some words in a French song. One of the words we were learning was the word “Bonheur” which is pronounced exactly like the word Boner. “It means happiness,” said the teacher, but because of her heavy French accent it sounded like she said, “it means a penis.” Though I'd mentally check out of class around hour three of our four hour French class, like anyone else, when your French teacher is screaming the word penis you start paying attention. “Wait it means a penis?” I asked, and the teacher said, “oui, oui it means happiness,” with a huge smile on her face. Luckily, one of the girls in my class speaks a little french and quickly explained to both my teacher and I what was really trying to be said between the two of us. It made for an equally awkward and hilarious moment, as both my teacher and i turned bright red and laughed nervously.
To put it simply, French is a very hard language to learn. There are few rules and too many exceptions. Small nuances in pronunciation can completely change the meaning of a word, and what you read is not always what you say. In Spanish, for example, the word “Cuando” is pronounced just like you read it. But, in French, the word “Quand” which also means “when” is pronounced something like “keh.” So you have five letters and pronounce about two and a half of them, it gets very confusing. This is one of the hardest things for me when learning French, knowing what letters to pronounce and how to pronounce them.
But, the most difficult part of learning French is probably the fact that every object has a gender, and there aren’t really rules. “You just have to memorize it,” says my French teacher. I thought a really good way to go about learning the genders would be using genders in English. I drove my roommate crazy for about a day saying things like, “Amy, have you seen my wallet? I can’t find him.” This wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped, being that on the day of the quiz I knew that "wallet" was male but had no idea how to say it in French.
Although a lot of Parisians speak English, many don’t. And so, I find myself flailing my arms around, pointing at things, and making random noises to try and convey things like, “I seem to have a cold, what would you recommend I take?” The word for cold is “Rhume” and the word for rum is “Rhum” and they are pronounced almost exactly the same. So, only after pointing at my throat and repeating the word “Rum” for five minutes, did the pharmacist finally understand that I was actually telling her I had a cold.
French really is a beautiful language, but its very difficult to learn and even harder to understand. And while I may not leave France being anywhere near fluent, I’ll always know the word “ça,” which means “that,” and has been extremely useful in telling people what I want in restaurants and stores.
Because of my face and my ability to blend rather seamlessly into the woodwork here, it becomes a bit of an issue when I can’t speak any of the local languages. People scream at me or whisper behind their hands at me in Twi, under the assumption that I understand and can commiserate. It’s becoming a little frustrating because of the way language can be associated with cultural identity: am I a “true” (read: half) Ghanaian if I don’t speak Twi? Truth be told, I’m tired of people asking me why I don’t speak Twi. “Why don’t you ask my dad?” I long to say every time, because it's likely that they don't know what it's like to try and assimilate into white American culture by not teaching your children your mother tongue, and they definitely don't know that I don't even live with my Twi-speaking father.
More often than not, I lie and say I am, in fact, taking a Twi class, but my professor has had malaria for the last two months and is out of commission.
This is all interesting in that it gets me thinking about the use of learning a language. I think the fact that English is the official language of Ghana has gotten me lazy; if I were studying in Prague or Buenos Aires I think I would feel much more pressured to learn to function in Czech or Spanish. Here, all of the signs are in English, newspapers is in English, the music is overwhelmingly English. So when people ask me in “Do you speak Twi?” I don’t feel as uncomfortable as I probably should when I respond with a defiant “No.” So I guess we all do things to avoid looking like a “near-idiot,” a feeling I’m all too familiar with: when I was studying in Montreal, there were far too many occasions where I would be hanging around with my 22-year-old host sister and her friends and feel stupid trying to explain what Gallatin is, in broken French Canadian.
When I went to South Africa this past winter, I remember being pleasantly surprised when a group of giggling little girls tugged on my arm in Soweto and asked me a question in Zulu. “They think I’m one of them,” I thought in wonder, when their eyes got all big and round when I asked if they spoke English. However, that was South Africa and I am not Zulu. Here, I am half-Ashanti and everyone knows and it is interesting to actually be one of them.
Living with a family in Madrid, I maintain conversations about a number of topics throughout the day, forgetting that I am speaking anything but my native tongue. I read signs, answer questions from passerbys on the street, and write notes without thought. While words, grammar, and vocabulary remain second nature, I am frequently reminded that I am not, after all, a Spaniard.
The subtlety of expressions and idioms, not to mention cultural customs or specific gestures are often lost on me entirely. Many such things cannot be taught in a classroom, rather must be learned through experience out and about. In my office, I am learning the professional ways; out to dinner, I see the social norms; in school, I note the academic distinctions – but this takes time. And some are lost on me entirely, like this retail display I came across a few weeks back (pictured above).
There is a scene in one of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Inglourious Basterds, that frequently runs through my mind, related to this very issue. A group of characters are gathered around a table in a bar and one counts to three, showing the number with his fingers. After making this small gesture, one which we do without any forethought whatsoever, the person is attacked. Because of the fingers he chose to use (simply indicating the number three with or without the thumb), the others immediately became aware of his foreign identity and lies. This is clearly an extreme example that has been dramatized for cinematic effect, but the message rings true. The littlest things, the habits which we don’t even notice, are what set us all apart.
So yes, I can pass as a native Spanish-speaker for much of my time here, but coming across as a local? … that’s a whole different story. I will work hard to take note of mannerisms, of gesture, of quirky Spanish ways, but I am not trying to fool anyone. Just like I can spot someone from Northern California, a Madrileño knows his kin.
In my opinion language not only opens doors to travel and communicate around the world but it also, equally as important, opens doors in the mind. Like Botton's idea that looking out of a train window can conjure up a thought process that would otherwise have remained dormant had you just been standing not moving. Language too, with its new words, phrases, and even ideas, it seems can bring about an emotional shift with in the brain. As your world view begins to change with the understanding of a new language you will undoubtedly follow. Unfortunately I don't think I have quite reached this epiphanic moment in my understanding of a language but I think the culture of a place can certainly rub off on you in other ways of communicating. Her in Buenos Aires I have to feel more with my body and take things in with my senses to understand instead of just using my mind to listen to words and comprehend. I watch the eyes of my family at dinner, their body language and even feel tension in the air or I know when someone is feeling anxious or worried or sad even though they responded to my question of “how are you” or “every thing good” with a “bien”. Sometimes I'm to blame too. I say bien even if I am not because I just don't or can't go into how I feel so I'll rub it off. This can in a way inhibit my familial bonds because we can't talk about how we feel to each other. Feelings are one of the most difficult things to express in any language, especially a foreign one.
Another interesting observation I have found while living in Buenos Aires is the phenomenon of subtitles. I finally know enough Spanish, or have just reached that point like from going from being a senior in high school, when you think you know everything, to being a freshman in college and realizing you really know nothing. I haven't decided which is more correct but regardless when there are english words being spoken in an American movie or on TV and those spanish subtitles come on the screen down below I am constantly distracted because they more often than not seem to be mis-translated, at least in a literal sense. But I am realizing more and more that maybe the translator wasn't stupid. Maybe they have some deeper understanding of the spanish language and how it is received by spanish speakers. Different words have different effects on people. As one of my local professors says about translating it needs to be done for effect, not word for word.
Overall I am curious to see what happens to me as I deepen my understanding of spanish, but will I ever know if it is the language or the culture that changes me while I am down here or as we are seeming to find, the two are inseparable. But for know as Flaubert said I feel a bit like tackling Spanish can too be summed up in ...shit.
Learning a new language, and in my case, refining that skill is truly incredible. In my life as a dual speaker, I’ve learned that there are just some things in life that are not translatable. Coming to Spain I am able to see life with these two gears.
Speaking on a day to day basis in a foreign language is not simple. Never in my life have I had to speak this much Spanish in my daily routine! Speaking to my señora is difficult because she uses her native colloquialisms and I use mine. Yes, we both speak the same language but we sometimes don’t have the same words to express ourselves in. These little challenges have made me reflect on the idea of language and how language differs through generations and regions.
My life in school is certainty different from back at the NYU campus. My classes are all in Spanish. I have never taken a politics class in Spanish before. Listening to my professor speak about the economic recession in Spanish, you can feel his fury and passion about the subject; something that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before.
Listening to the Spaniards talk about life in Spanish brings a new perspective. Language is the ability to communicate life to others. It’s amazing to think that there are words in Spanish that don’t exist in English. Think about all of those verb tenses! Is it because the Spanish speakers see the world differently?
Communicating in Spain is not easy. But I’m not in a rush to learn everything. I have had difficulties in communicating and sometimes speaking but that’s part of the journey. After living here for 4 weeks, I’ve had my perspective on life change. Is it because of the Spanish way of living? Or because speaking in Spanish allows one to see life differently? Who knows?
Pic: Typical restaurant sign in spain. Took me awhile to realize that patatas are what I know to be papas which are potatoes.
We had a language crash course, which was fairly useful. It enabled me to finally go grocery shopping. However, that doesn’t mean I always end up buying what I had actually intended on buying.
For example, the other day I came home and opened a packet of what I prayed was butter.
Me- Oh jeez I really hope this is butter.
Roommate- Hahaha Eric said the same thing!
Me, poking the hunk of dairy with a knife- Not to be racist, but this stuff is way too white for my comfort.
Me, taking a bite of said dairy product- $#!& this is so not butter! Goddamit Prague I just want some butter!
It was some kind of creamy cheese.
Similarly, I have wasted a ton of money by constantly buying the wrong kind of milk. I always some how end up getting some strange sour smelling thick milk. I have tried various brands and tried to act it out to several attendants at the grocery store, but I always end up with the same thing. I have no idea what exactly it is, but according to one of my professors the Czechs love it.
In a separate incident, during my first week here I was showering with what I thought was a body wash. The only things that were written in English on the bottle were, “Nivea” and “24 Hour Extreme Hydration”. To my jetlagged mind and shower yearning body, that sounded like body wash. The stuff did not lather, and I whined about it everyday for a week but was too busy with orientation to remember to find out from my RA what it actually was.
It turned out to be body lotion.
A lot of people are complaining about how much they hate this language barrier. It definitely is very frustrating. There are too many consonants and too few vowels in every word, making them impossible to pronounce. Grocery shopping is difficult. Getting directions is almost impossible. My friend and I laugh about how the crash course only really taught us how to pick up men at bars; “Hi my name is ----? What’s your name”, “Where do you live”, “I want a beer”, “My number is ----“.
But I secretly love the madness of not speaking Czech. It becomes the foundation for brilliant future stories, and is just part of the great travelling experience.
(The sign in the photo is something I found outside one of the cages at the Praha Zoo)
Regarde: My list of things that are not so different here.
1) That look that a lover gets in their eyes upon greeting their loved ones-or, really, affection in general.
-Whenever I see a couple greeting each other, seeing the Eiffel tower sparkle together, or just a family walking around together…those subtle winks, the swinging of held hands, endearing looks, and sideways glances accompanied by that certain eye crinkling smile are everywhere.
If an elderly gentlemen with a cane, or a mother of three who is trying to wrangle her gaggle of kids is on the subway—you give up your seat for them. You recognize the nonsense, and try to accept the fact that yes, there are screaming children, and yes, you will now be standing for the next 45 minutes of your subway ride…But you get over it (mostly, at least) recognizing that that mother or that elderly man is having a much harder time that you right now as you bustle off to class.
3) Every time I say “I’m from New York,” The French go crazy.
-And if I tell them I’ currently live on “Manhattan,” it’s nuts. It’s almost as if I’d said “Paris” or something…Wait. But really, the fascination with the external transcends just our US mentality- it seems to exist everywhere.
Things are different- the scenery, some customs, the language, the surroundings…but people are people.
Which brings me to the question- if people are so similar here, then why do we travel? The lust after things like “the Orient” for Flaubert seems similar to a phenomenon a good portion of my generation and generations before (re: every explorer ever) has suffered from: Wanderlust. However, people there are just the same as people here. For instance if our “there” was our familiar “here” we wouldn’t find it interesting in the slightest. Are we really that bored with our own existence that we develop an unquenchable thirst for “The Exotic”? Should we all focus on discovering the wealth of “exotic” things that appear in our own neighborhoods and try to readjust the way we see ourselves? Or is it natural? Just some food for thought, I guess.
For the time being, though, I'm more than happy to travel and be a pseudo explorer.
To understand the title, .
[NOTE: Youtube in the US wouldn't let people watch the clip so I converted it to an mp4 and uploaded it to Mediafire. It's a short clip compatible with quicktime. Please let me know if you have any problems!]
From advertisements for Glo mobile phone service to signs such as “The Future is Unknown Drinking Spot,” English adorns the architectural and mobile environments everywhere I’ve gone. The billboards and the walls, the trotros and the shacks, Ghana’s lingua franca is ever present. Combined with the more leisurely pace of life, I get the overwhelming sense that I’m on a vacation instead of living a semester on the foreign continent of Africa.
Showing up at a dorm unannounced, talking about boys, having someone do my hair, it all felt so stereotypically college-like except in a Ghanaian context. The conversation’s topics could have come up in any girls’ dorm room anywhere. Its deliver I have only experienced in Ghana. I could see the thread of conversation, sense what kinds of comments and responses would be appropriate at certain points, but I couldn’t catch it myself. The discussion writhed and twisted so quickly that I was often confused by the sounds and how they fit together.
I have traveled to countries before where I couldn’t understand the common language. Even more strange is traveling to a place where many people speak English and still not understanding it. The Ghanaian girls I met spoke rapidly and used terms in ways I wasn’t familiar with. A hot guy? Nope, he was a fresh boy. That girl who knows about everything local? She’s an area girl. What to say when you’re about to explain your point? I’m coming. I continued to listen.
Often times, the conversation would break from English into Twi or Ga, two of the more widely spoken local languages in Accra. The girls asked at one point how much of the languages I had picked up. Ghanaians I see on a daily basis at NYU locations or on the street have tried to teach me bits of their native languages. One tries to add a new Twi word to my vocabulary every now and then while another offered to give me Ga lessons whenever I had time. I said some of the phrases I’d learned. The girls laughed, then helped correct my pronunciation.
(The photo is my own)
Within two days of living here I realized that people don’t really say “oui”, one of the only words I knew. Instead they go around saying “ouais ouais” to everything. This term, pronounced way, but spelled nothing like it, is more informal, and means “yeah” or “yep”.
It’s as if the French have an evil plan against anyone who wants to learn their language. For starters, the young generation here literally swaps words around to form their own French slang. Instead of saying “merci” they say “cimer” and so on. Phonetics and grammar is another story. Nothing is pronounced the way it’s spelled. Singular and plural words are pronounced exactly the same even though the plural words are spelled “avec s”. Other words that mean completely different things are said the exact same. For example, the word fêtemeaning party is said the exact same way as the conjugation of the verb faire meaning to make or do, into the we form, nous faites.Context clues and gestures are all playing a huge role in learning this complicated and frustrating language.
It seems to me that people here do not care to go out of their way to include you in their conversations. Maybe they are just as embarrassed to try to speak English, as I am to speak French?
Last week I exercised the “watchful silence” as I sat in Luxembourg Gardens. I was reading a book for school, but was mildly distracted by a young man sitting across from me at The Medici Fountain. Honestly, he was beautiful, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He was reading a book and rocking out to the music he was listening to on big headphones. He grabbed a cigarette from his bag and fumbled around for a minute. He then stood up and started looking around, obviously for a lighter. A woman with a toddler walked by and offered her light to him, he accepted, thanked her and went back to his business. About twenty minutes later he went to smoke another cigarette, and realized again that he was without fire, as they say in France. Just then, the toddler from before came waddling over to him and gave the young man his mom’s lighter. It was one of the cutest, most endearing moments I’ve ever witnessed. I couldn’t understand a word of their exchange; yet I understood the scenario perfectly. The lack of understanding French can get in the way of a lot of experiences here, but some basic human interactions can be understood in any and all languages.
I tend to think that if someone speaks English, then they automatically speak my English. That all the slang, phrases and sarcasm that I use, they too will understand. Not the case. I have been finding that certain, what I thought common, phrases do not transfer to here. I will be in a taxi and say “pull up on the right” but the driver understands that as “turn right”. I have had to learn to say sternly, or sometimes yell, stop, in order for them to pull over.
Similarly I have found it difficult to decipher how to decline politely. In the states when you are cat called at or rudely spoken too on the street, you put your head down or face forward and surge ahead, ignoring the unwanted comment. However, it is more complicated in Ghana as some of the people who are doing the calling are old women in the market who want to get your attention so you will look at their goods. And while I may not want what they are selling, I feel rude not responding to their seemingly innocent question of “how are you? What is your name?” Where is the line between a friendly conversation and soliciting business? With this in mentality, I find myself saying “no thank you”, to men who are grabbing my arm on the street. Were I home and someone did that I would have a very different reaction of anger and strength. But here I am so aware that I am just visiting and so feel the need to be polite at all times, even where I really should not be.
The official language of Ghana is English. However, I tend to take that general sweeping statement as true for everyone. This therefore makes me lazy as I think that I do not have to learn anything, being a native English speaker. The more educated people have a wide vocabulary of English and so it is not too much of an issue, but the sellers on the street know what they need in order to conduct business and not much else. I find myself therefore only speaking English. But I am a visitor to their country, which makes me think that the effort should go both ways. If they can make the effort to use English for me, likely their only English customer, then I can learn the basic traditional language for them.
(Twi for Thank you)
Yes, there are differences in the way Americans and Brits use the English language, but we do speak the same language. Since arriving in the UK, I have not experienced any difficulty in expressing my thoughts, opinions, or wishes. Brits may have an interesting accent, but it is nothing too foreign to comprehend. Thanks to globalized forms of media and entertainment, we are quite used to hearing the English accent. I don’t think many Americans have trouble understanding the language in Harry Potter.
De Botton describes his exoticism in seeing a sign at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport, which is written in an unfamiliar language. The excitement and intrigue associated with being immersed in a non-English speaking country often heightens our travel experiences. Communication is the most essential factor in human relations. When we lose or struggle with communication, we immediately feel unsettled and displaced. While this may be extremely uncomfortable, it can be exciting when we find ourselves not knowing how to order a cup of coffee or ask for directions. Most travelers seek this sense of displacement. When we travel to a foreign place, we truly want to be anywhere other than the places we know.
So how can I find a sense of exoticism in a place that seems anything but exotic? De Botton explains how, “A socket, a bathroom tap, a jam jar or an airport sign may tell us more than its designer intended; it may speak of the nation that made it” (67). Simple things, like going to a grocery store, can be an exotic adventure in itself. Prawn cocktail crisps (shrimp cocktail flavored potato chips) are hard to come by in American supermarkets.
Though I may be able to understand a street sign, the street sign is quite different from one that I may see in New York. The words are English, but they speak of a foreign culture. The sign points me in the direction of a place I do not know; a place with a story that I am unfamiliar with. I know the language, but I do not know what it represents. To me, that which is unknown is exotic.
The image is a cartton I found on speaking "English"