Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I have a dream...

I have struggled writing today’s post. I am passionate about this subject though, but writing is making it true. I haven’t realized yet what is happening to us. I need to document it though, to remember and to be able to smile, in some time, when reading about our struggles.

On January, 26th, I’ll join the North American branch of the company I work for. I’ll be based in Atlanta. My job description stays pretty much similar, but everything else is about to change: colleagues, language, culture, life style, my husband’s career…

As of today, I have fulfilled at least two very detailed forms, had the chance to take pretty pictures of myself and the hubby and visited the American Embassy in Paris. This process enabled us to get granted our L1 / L2 visas without major difficulty.

This week, we need to settle on which company will move our belongings by boat. We have put on the market cars and electronics. We still have so many cartons to prepare before we leave for Atlanta early December to find a place to leave.

We dreamt of this big change. It is now time to jump into this new life, feeling happy, sad, scared, frustrated, all at the same time…

Monday, November 24, 2014

The influence on language on life - Part 4/4

Tips to improve communication between native and non native speakers



  • Speak slowly and articulate. Which means enunciate clearly, not repeat as fast as before. As basic at is seems, it is often the key to a better communication. It doesn’t mean you need to speak to them as if they were toddlers. Just take your time talking.
  • Go for shorter sentences.  The shorter and simpler your sentences are, the most chances you have to be understood. When I don’t remember the beginning of a sentence by the end of it, don’t expect a clever answer! I also have to forget about the complex way French sentences are sometimes built to go back to basics.
  • Refrain from using slang, complex or technical words. Try to use words the other person has better chances to understand. You can find out much about their vocabulary by listening them talk and using similar words. I remember vividly my colleagues looking at me funny for not knowing the word “spring” (not the season but the metal thing) during GreenBelt training. I’m not stupid; I just don’t know some words that are obvious to you.


  • Watch the other person’s reactions. You’ll see on their faces if they understand you, which words they are comfortable with, etc. That will help you correct and adjust to be understood better.
  • Don’t make fun of them. Not a single bad word on their accents, their grammar or vocabulary. You are not doing an effort speaking their language so you don’t get to complain. Mocking their accent may be funny to you, but think of the hours of practice, of the effect on their insecurities and their self confidence levels. This is bullying, not having fun.


  • Help them. Give them the opportunity to express themselves but help with a missing word when needed. If you know them well enough, you can talk about helping them improve by correcting their mistakes. Of course, not all the time and in front of everyone, but sometimes it is good to know that the word you are using all the time does not mean what you think it does. To propose and to offer are two tricky one for me for instance.
  • Watch your grammar. Remember that a non native speaker learnt the grammar rules quite recently compared to you. Also, schools teach proper grammar without telling you what native speakers main pitfalls are. So if you grammar is too shady, it makes understanding you a lot more difficult.
  • Your difficulties are not theirs. For instance, I never struggle with the “s” (plural) and “ ‘s” (possession). The rule was always clear to me, maybe because every word has a gender in French. On the other side, tenses were a nightmare to master and I overuse be+ing.


  • Latin idioms speakers know Latin based words. Languages such as French, Spanish and Italian have a very strong Latin base. If you use English words based on Latin, it will be easier for them to understand you. Latin words are often longer than German words. For instance, “finished” is a lot more natural to me than “done” as it has Latin roots.
  • Tell them if they do a “language faux-pas”. Many words are very close between English and French and it is easy to mistake them for one another. In France we call them “false friends”: they sound similar to a French word but have a different meaning. If you add to these the French words used in English in a slightly different way, it gets pretty tricky! To propose and to offer are two tricky one for me for instance. In French, to propose means to offer, and to offer means to give for free. Headache much?

Friday, November 21, 2014

The influence on language on life - Part 3/4

What’s the most difficult for me?

  • Accents: I’ve learnt English with people having either a French accent or the typical “Oxford” like accent. Even in TV show / movies, accents tend to be limited (except for TrueBlood, which gave me a hard time). I usually need a few days to get used to accents. But sometimes, I never succeed. Hopefully, my husband has lived in England (read English pubs) before, so he understands accents a lot better and helps me. Also, because I’m fluent, people tend to forget English is not my first language and speak as they would with anybody else.
  • Puns / cultural references: I can get some puns, but clearly not all. Cultural references are a nightmare, as they are often half said and half implied. The songs, movies, TV shows, celebrities that are part of the general knowledge of an average American person are not mine. So if you talk to me and I end up laughing halfheartedly with everyone else, that may be because I didn’t understand your punch line.
  • Talks between native speakers: Listening to two colleagues who know each other speak together can be tough. Names of people / places I don’t know, reference to past events, speed and level of speech… There are usually too many obstacles for me to properly understand all the subtleties. 
  • Slang: Granted, I love swearing and learn naughty words first. That doesn’t mean I’m always up to speed with slang. Some English colleagues like to do that famous game where you change one word by another on the condition they rhyme. That’s fun, but please keep it outside the office. Incidentally, I know a few internet slang words (and I’m not above using them as revenge!).
  • Technical words: In my company, even in France, we use a lot of English words (that we butcher daily) to describe our activity. That doesn’t mean I can easily talk about specific details of our cartons for instance (I work for a document management company) in English without struggling to find the right words. I don’t know much about car vocabulary (in French neither actually), but I know plenty when it comes to cooking or make up. It all depends of my center of interest, the words I use daily and those I’ve been taught. And as an English major in college, I’ve learned plenty of useless words and still lack many essential ones!
  • Volume: I’ve learned with time and experience that if I can understand French at a low volume, I need the person I’m speaking with to be loud enough in order to understand them. With TV, I usually turn up the volume. If I can’t, I’ll enable subtitles so I can figure out what I missed (though I always end up reading stupidly the subtitles…). 
  • Phone calls / drive thru: This last point is very much influenced by the previous one. If I can’t ear clearly, I can’t answer right. But also, I have a quiet voice that doesn’t get picked up well by microphones. Between that fact and my accent, I always end up screaming at drive thru. I’ve eventually found earphones that have a noise cancelation function and pick up my voice pretty well. I still spend my conference calls holding the mic in front of my mouth, but at least people can hear me.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The influence on language on life - Part 2/4

Mother tongue is like a reflex

Just like your maiden name is always your name, even if you marry, your mother tongue will always be your first language, even if you live in a place speaking another language. I spend a good proportion of my day surrounded in English, but I still dream in French. My husband is perfectly fluent in French, but will ask me for water in the middle of the night in Arabic.

Spanglish is another good example to me. Native Spanish speakers living in an English speaking country have developed an in-between way of speaking. Here is a Spanglish 101 if you are not familiar with it: Guide to Spanglish
Obviously, the same tends to happen in every language. I tend to incorporate some English to my French and some French to my English. Even if you speak both these languages, understanding young French Canadian people is a challenge.

Learning a new language

Learning a new language requires efforts and time, but above everything else it requires you to learn to see the world differently. You will need to shift your paradigm slightly to understand grammar and tenses. It took me a while to understand the difference between “It has rained”, “It rained”, “It rains”, “It is raining”, “It has been raining” and to know which one to use according to what I want to say.

It is easier to learn a language as a child, partly because you are a better learner, but also because of school. Teachers make sure that you practice and take some time for that new language. As a full time working adult, I find it very difficult to spare the time to work on my Arabic. Once your level is good enough, improving becomes easier, as you can integrate it in your daily life, by reading or watching the television for instance.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The influence on language on life - Part 1/4

As of today, I speak two languages fluently (French and English), one poorly but enough to understand and be understood (Spanish) and I try to learn a new one (Arabic). French is my native language. I’ve learnt English and Spanish at school (I have a BA in English) and my husband teaches me some Arabic. Though I am no expert, I’d like to share some of my experience with language.

And as I don’t have as much time for blogging as I’d like, I’ve decided to post my thoughts on language in four parts.

Language sets the way you see the world

English is centered on the action and its consequences, whereas French focuses on the subject that does the action. Therefore, the way you see and describe a situation will vary accordingly. Spanish has two words for “there”, one being closer from the subject than the other. French has a very rich cooking vocabulary, borrowed by English speakers.

All these examples and many more, show that the world we see is influenced by our language. Language is what stands between the intangible idea in our brains and the outside world. Depending on the words and rules in your language, the idea you’ll convey will appear differently. Obviously, it also applies from one person to another in the same language (think of the telephone game) but is amplified when different cultures and idioms are involved.

So next time you speak with someone whose first language is different than yours and feel frustrated, keep in mind that the feeling is most probably mutual and due to incomprehension.