Language Help

When we told people we were moving to Geneva, everyone asked about the national language. The easy answer is that there isn’t one. In the French part of Switzerland, they speak French. In the German part, German and in the Italian portion of the country, Italian. There is a fourth national language called Romansch but seeing as about eleven people in the world speak it, it seems unnecessary to mention. Geneva falls in the French section- especially obvious because it’s surrounded by France on most sides. I do not speak French well. I speak English of course and some Spanish. Never in my life could I imagine living in a French speaking country so Spanish seemed the most helpful. And up until now, it was. I am attempting to learn some French. I started using Rosetta Stone infrequently but did pick up some of the accent and the fact that the French drop almost every other syllable from their words. (Seriously- you pronounce “mange” and “mangent” exactly the same way despite the two consonants at the end. Steve Saunders- why do they do that!?!)

But for the first several weeks, maybe even months, I struggled with daily life because of my lack of French. I could not call and make reservations or appointments and when I did call, I started most of my conversations with “Do you speak English?” I can’t say I’m much better but I have figured out how to use Google Translate to my advantage and I am able to read a lot. Being surrounded by the language helps me. But, I still go to the grocery store and get strange looks when I am studying the packaging to figure out what kind of flour I am about to purchase. Or when I pause while making a reservation because I have to count to seven in my head before I can remember the word for it. In fact, I get enough scowls from others when I speak to Forest in English that I am considering speaking only Spanish to him when we are in public. I think they would be much less worried about a Spanish speaker. 

This whole experience has given me tremendous sympathy for people who move to America and do not speak English. I know that I have been guilty or staring curiously at mothers speaking another language to their child in the grocery store. When I worked in New York, we often had customers who came in asking for someone who spoke Spanish. I thought it was ignorant to move to a country or even visit without a cursory understanding of the language. But, because my Spanish is not perfect, I rarely volunteered to help them or even try to help. But now I realize I am that person who is floundering and feels completely lost even though people all around her are communicating. Actions that were so easy in Texas are much more difficult here simply because of the language barrier.

I hope when we move back, I will be much kinder to people who are speaking another language and will be sure to offer my Spanish speaking abilities to help. I would love it if people here even attempted to speak English to me. My friend Cheryl says people often ask if they can practice their English with her. That hasn’t happened to me yet but you better believe that when I move back, I will be asking people to practice Spanish with me. Especially people who look a little lost in grocery stores.


3 thoughts on “Language Help

  1. Hi Jane. I’m just catching up after lots of travel and jet lag. This post makes me sad for you – and makes me think about how I react to those non-native English speakers. Thanks for giving me a reason to reflect and be a bit more kind.
    I know you are trying and I’m sure you are doing the best you can. Give Forest a big squishy American hug and kiss. We miss you all here!

  2. Hi Jane! I just saw what you’re up to through Facebook and thought I’d say hello. Two of my cousins actually grew up in Geneva 🙂 I can sympathize with the challenges of communicating, but it sounds like you’re on the right track! I recommend the website Livemocha for language practice, instead of Rosetta Stone; it’s free and has a large community of users who are really friendly and helpful. And about the French spelling– things like mange/mangent were not always pronounced the same, but since French never drops the pronoun (unlike Spanish where you can just say “soy” instead of “yo soy”), it is always clear if they mean he’s eating or they’re eating, and so there is no need to pronounce the -ent ending!

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