Do I need a foreign language intervention?

Do I need a foreign language intervention?

Time to start cracking the books again!

Monolingualism, as a bumper sticker recently assured me, can be cured. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I’ve been neglecting my linguistic health for so long, I’m afraid the prognosis for a complete recovery is hopeless.

As expats, we have a built-in push to learn the lingua franca of our host country. It makes our lives so much easier, on both a practical level and an emotional one. It invests us in our new life abroad, helps our cultural adjustment, and perhaps most importantly for our mental health, it guides us in our interactions with local people. This last point is crucial for living expat life to the fullest — few things are more isolating than not being able to engage with your community because of a language barrier.

I’m sure most expats would agree that acquiring a language organically, through total immersion, is a painful but effective approach. I certainly found learning French much easier than learning Mandarin, because in Bordeaux I was enveloped en français. I couldn’t escape it if I tried (and believe me, there were days when I tried. Hard.) It’s not completely effortless — I’d be telling a big fat lie if I told you I absorbed French through osmosis — but it’s amazing what being forced to function in a language all day long does for fluency.

In Singapore, learning Mandarin was a side project. I can only remember needing it once, when I had a cab driver who spoke nothing else. Otherwise, it was all English, all the time. (With a little Singlish thrown in to keep me on my toes.)

I was determined to keep up both languages when I moved back to Canada. I figured it would be easy: French is an official language of my homeland, after all. And the Chinese population in Mississauga, where I live, is about 45,000. There are so many Chinese clubs and associations (not to mention churches, restaurants, and supermarkets), that I expected maintaining my rudimentary Mandarin would be a cinch.

You’d think I would know by now that the biggest obstacle to grandiose plans like that is me.

Freshly repatriated, I registered for a conversation class at my local Alliance Française. A few months later I discovered the Ministry of Education’s International Languages programme and started attending free Saturday morning Mandarin lessons. (The classes are for high school credit, so I outrank most of my classmates by a good 30 years. But at that price, I’m not complaining.)

And then, my gung-ho language mission sort of went pffffft. The Alliance class finished, and life got a little busy, so I didn’t re-register. I dropped out of Mandarin class last December because of a long illness, and never went back when things improved. Inertia wins again!

Chinese terra cotta warrior

One of the terra cotta warriors from the ROM exhibit.

Something happened this past week that made it perfectly clear just how far I’ve let things slide: I attended the Warrior Emperor and China’s Terracotta Army exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). The warriors were impressive, and the ROM does a great job of contextualizing its exhibits, so there was a ton of information on display in English, French, and Chinese.

It was a sad moment when I realized I could no longer read any of the Chinese, aside from the really easy characters like 人 (person, people), 大 (big), and 我 (I, me). While I was still processing that disappointment, I remembered a phone call I had with my French friend Bérengère several months ago, in which I stumbled, stuttered, and generally embarrassed both of us. Linguistically, it’s clear that I’ve Let Myself Go.

But all is not lost: I know that the Mandarin and French I so painstakingly learned are tucked away somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind. Although I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, maybe now is the perfect time to ditch the bad habits that got me into this mess and focus instead on restoring my foreign language health. No intervention required.


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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6 Responses to Do I need a foreign language intervention?

  1. Judy says:

    I am so in awe of anyone who learns ANY Mandarin, it must be so hard with all those tones. And you learned some of the characters too? Wow! Arabic was bad enough for me.

    Total immersion, being forced to speak the language, is without doubt the best way to learn. But what I found on my travels was that most of the world seems to want to learn English and are so delighted to find a native-speaker that it’s really hard to convince them to speak in their native language.

    Maybe if you start studying Mandarin again you can turn into a Chinese mom 😉

    • Maria says:

      Probably the best way around the “speak English” problem is to offer a language swap: one hour in their language for an hour of English. And as for being impressed, all I have to say is ARABIC. Tones or no tones, Arabic has to be one tough language to learn.

      As for me becoming a Chinese mom, I’m way too lazy for that. Although the woman who wrote the article on why Chinese mothers are superior did make some valid points, her parenting style really goes against the grain for me.

  2. Hi!
    I’m aexpat wife too, and I live in Thailand!
    So, I am very happy here, and I’d like to tell you that I like so much yours and I will try to ready all!
    I have a BLOG too, in portuguese… but if you want, you can tranalate it!
    So… see you!

    • Maria says:

      Thanks, Renata. I hope you visit here often. I checked out your blog — it looks like you have a lot of good stuff there. Google Translate doesn’t do it justice! I’ll be going back when I have more time to look at some of your videos.

  3. bookjunkie says:

    I so admire you for attempting. I think Chinese is the hardest language in the world. I have great difficulty with the tones. And it seems that each word has to be memorized. I found French hard too (just a beginner), but Chinese is a whole new world of hard. It’s not only the sounds of the language that I can’t distinguish and pronounce, but the writing system as well, with the pictographical characters. I sometimes wish I has learnt it as a child, as a whole lot of jobs in Singapore require it. I find the dialect Hokkien a lot easier, as there are no tones and it’s easier to pick up from friends. It’s used quite a lot in casual speech. Most Singlish words are Hokkien in origin.

    Tamil is a lot easier as the spelling reflects pronunciation. You just need to get over the hurdle of over 250 letters. The grammar is also quite simple with defined rules. But then again, that’s probably because I heard this language at my grandmother’s house as she looked after me as a baby and you tend to pick up sounds and grammar innately, before the age of 3.

    I think I am just in love with the English language and just feel the most comfortable with it. Even when it comes to music, it has to be in English for me, because besides the melody, understanding the lyrics are a big part of my appreciation.

    • Maria says:

      “Chinese is a whole new world of hard.” This made me laugh out loud. I didn’t realize Hokkien has no tones — that would be much easier to learn, but I think it must make for a lot of confusion over word meanings. I agree with you about English, though. I’m in love with it too, and I’m so grateful to be a native speaker of such a beautiful (and useful!) language.

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