Sunday, November 14, 2010

English Is A Foreign Language Too

So I had myself an epiphany today. I don't really speak English. True, honest to goodness English that is.  The English that I speak is watered down California Valley Girl English sprinkled with all the trimmings of likes, no ways!, totallies!, awesomes, for reals?, dudes, and way cools. I do refrain from grodie, tubular, and gnarly. And I am not rude enough to respond to others with any as ifs. And as for OMGs well, I consider myself too old for that one.

This realization that English is almost as foreign to me as French struck today when we had Soren's relatives, Olivier and Valentine, over for lunch. They speak English, very well actually. But regardless of this fact, it is still a mental exercise for their brains to work in English for a few hours straight. Occasionally, they reverted back to French, I think because Soren tries very hard to speak French when we are with them. My impression is that they believe we can understand more French than we actually do. Soren politely asked Valentine, "Lentement s'il vous plaît," (slowly, please). She obliged, and Soren was able to understand her.

This made me realize that I take their English skills for granted and that I should work harder to speak more slowly for their benefit too. Not a problem, it is fairly easy to speak more slowly. But then it hit me. The speed of my speech probably isn't so much an issue for them as my use of words. I need to speak true English. Not Valley Girl English.

My brain was not ready for this exercise in discipline. Imagine becoming one-hundred-percent conscious of every word that is being automatically generated in your brain and instantly formed in concert by your voicebox, tongue, and lips, ready to emerge as effortlessly and quickly as usual. I realized, not for the first time but, especially today, how silly these words actually sound.

These circa-1980's words are superfluous words, ones that have meaning to Olivier and Valentine, but in a completely different context than what the Valley Girl definitions imply. For example, if I were to tell  them that (true story) the other night, Soren and I were walking home late and we were approached from behind by a young woman walking alone. This woman inquired if we wouldn't mind accompanying her to her building so she did not have to walk alone in the dark on the city streets. Now, if I  told this story to a friend back home, I might describe it this way, "The woman was walking alone in this sketchy neighborhood and she was like, totally freaked out, she couldn't hang walking alone for a couple blocks. So we hung with her and she turned out to be way cool."

If I had told Olivier and Valentine the story in this manner, I imagine they would have understood that we were walking in an either artistic or incomplete neighborhood with a woman that was markedly unusual or irregular who wished to remain outside and that she could not suspend her walking for a pair of small wooden cubes and that we also suspended with her and that she was really cold. And who could blame them? Could you imagine if, when Valentine presented me with beautiful flowers today I had thanked her by saying, "Wow, these are totally killer flowers!" She would have probably felt obligated to explain that I was incorrect in thinking that these beautiful flowers are Oleanders when they are indeed non-poisonous Jonquils. 

So, it was with great effort today that I spoke true English with our guests. Because of my effort I noticed that my speech automatically slowed as I searched through my mental Rolodex to find suitable replacement words. I also noticed that I did not sound like me. I sounded older, like, for sure, and also a bit more educated. Since I already have a Master's, I'm going to say that I totally sounded like a PhD. It was pretty bitchin'.

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