Category Archives: Grammar

Strangely familiar, yet oh so foreign; on learning English and hanging out with Anglophones

I am two weeks into my new job as an “English Associate” with AMIDEAST here in Rabat, and things are going as well as could be expected. This month has been all about making friendly relationships with my roommates, my new co-workers, my students, and most surprisingly, the English language.

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Until recently, I’ve had a one-sided relationship with the English language. Like in any ones-sided relationship, the notion of power reigns. S(he) who beholds the power, is the baller shot-caller. With English I believed that I was running the show; I thought I was able to manipulate English to my advantage in pretty much any situation. After all, I’m usually able to select the most appropriate situations to implement my words directly or discursively. I can consciously pepper my sentences with humor and sarcasm, and engage mouthfuls of beautiful American slang. Naturally, I thought I was a true master of the English language… Needless to say, my extraterrestrial ego has been shattered, and I have been brought back to planet earth as a humble servant of the English language.

This gracious humbling has come in two forms: 1) English grammar, and 2) mingling with other native English speakers from around the globe.

It wasn’t until I began teaching English that I realized how much I still had to learn. I’ve taken being a native speaker for granted my entire life, and never considered what a complete pain in the ass it would be to learn English as a foreign language. As I stood in front of my Intermediate 4 class last Tuesday, I thought I was ready. However, my concept of being prepared was   a Powerpoint full of grammar I couldn’t explain, which I wrongly assumed would be to sufficient. Not even my background with improv could have prepared me for the ensuing hour and a half class, which I filled with lots of um’s and nervous shifty body language. For some context, on that particular day I was teaching a lesson on the 1st conditional–a concept that I have a strong natural grasp of, but very little theoretical training on. How many of you know what the 1st conditional means? …Exactly. To be VERY brief, we use conditionals when we are making “If” statements. An EXAMPLE of the 3rd conditional: If I had known this grammar point before class, I could have avoided the embarrassment of standing in front of 20 students like a deer in headlights promising to find out for Thursday.

This will surely be the first of many grammar points that I won’t be able to explain off the top of my head, because I never learned them in school. I learned to speak English naturally and correctly through immersion. I understand the frustration of my students, however, because I too have studied a foreign language, and I need the rules as much as the next person. Just ask me about French prepositions or feminine/masculine articles and I’ll launch into a tirade about how absolutely non-sensical they are. If you’re telling me to memorize something just because it SOUNDS right, but can’t give me any sort of structure or rule to apply it to, you will completely lose me.

My second (less distressing) realization that I was not a true Jedi of the English language came to me while mingling in the teachers lounge. Before coming to Rabat to teach English, my sole exposure to British slang was from the Harry Potter movies. However, here, I have been exposed to native English speakers from Australia, the U.K., and Canada, and I have begun to take careful note of their different accents and words. I love these other dialects of English because there is something so familiar about them, yet at the same time they are absolutely foreign. There have been many moments where I wonder if we truly do speak the same language. As a result, I’ve found myself analyzing my own slang, my usage of the word “like,” and my pronunciation of words with double t’s or d’s.

My favorite British colloquialisms thus far are for the word awesome: ace* and brilliant. I’ve promised myself to start using them in my everyday speech. However, I end up saying them with a monstrous British accent and all my co-workers think I’m making fun of them. But I’m not. I actually think they are brilliant.

I love the irony of the English teacher learning her own language, and I am now a firm believer that in order to be a true master of English you must hold an understanding of all the ridiculously complicated grammar rules and the various dialects. So maybe I won’t come home from Morocco with a stronger grasp of French or Spanish or Darija, but I can assure you that I will be well schooled in the many facets of English.

*Ace may be the American equivalent to rad. i.e. outdated. However, like certain fashion styles, I believe words, too, should come back into style. Therefore, I have recently re-added rad, gnarly and dope back into my vocabulary… so I’m pleasantly pleased to have ace.

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Sur le train; (PDA) public displays of alcoholism and a prepositional tirade

The end of my time in France is approaching as fast as a TGV… so readers, eloignez vous du bordure du quai. Le TGV 8932 en provenance de Sète et destination New York entrer en gare. These musical words, tinged with the sadness of departure, are permanently seared into that spot of your brain where one retains language. Seriously though, SNCF announcements are so catchy and repetitive that most of this country can repeat them by heart. However, for those of you unfamiliar with the doo doo doo-doo ringing from SNCF train stations across France fret not, this post is an hommage to the train system and to the slew of prepositions I have yet to master. *Mutters* …and who make me want to go absolutely mother effing ballistic on whoever created these tiny demon words.

Bref. The other day I was going to Montpellier to see a concert with some friends and we decided to take our apéro on the train with us. This is a fancy way of saying we were drinking on public trainsportation (pun intended). Public consummation of alcohol makes my American self uneasy…so as we walked past the police station on our way to catch the train (beers in hand) I made rookie mistake #1… as most Americans would. I tried to  discretely hold my beer to the side hoping the police wouldn’t notice, obviously not taking the note from my French friends who were quite nonchalant. The police did notice our PDA (public display of alcohol) however, they merely greeted us and told us to have a fun party. Reason number 345 why I don’t want to leave France…drinking openly and gaily is not at all looked down up or taboo. It is, rather, normal and encouraged by the law enforcement.

We arrived at the train station (beers in hand, more in our backpack), and this is where I made rookie mistake #2 of questioning whether or not is is OK for us to have alcohol on the train …apparently it is also appropriate to drink on French public transport. This question, however, which I asked in French, was my catalyst for this blog. I asked, “Est-ce qu’on peut boire sur le train?” — direct translation — “can we drink on the train?” This question,  demonstrates how with one teeny tiny word I can give away my anglophone origins to a native frog like this *snaps fingers*  What is this word, you ask? It is sur, which means on. Apparently under these specific circumstances sur means, can we drink ON the train. But like, literally, ON TOP of the mother#$%^&*@ train! Summon images of Slumdog Millionaire…no wait, I’ll do it for you: Image

These guys are “sur le train.” Me and my beer drinking friends? Oh no, we were DANS le train — In the train — obviously.

Now I will give myself some credit, because in 7 months I have gone from a blabbering nonsensical idiot to a decent conversationalist. Excluding the occasional confusion over a historical or pop culture reference and feminine/masculine articles, I’ve gotten pretty good at this language. The one thing, however, that I have not been able to wrap my brain around has been these stupid prepositions. This is because there is no rule to learning them… you just need to memorize them and use them until they are as natural to you as they are to a native speaker.

Thus, I have arrived at the most frustrating part of learning a foreign language — the fine tuning. I am comprehensible to a French person, but my minute grammar mistakes are enough to take them out of the conversation we are having and to remark (whether to themselves or out loud…usually out loud) that I have made a mistake. This is killing me softly. However, after making leaps and bounds with this wonderful language, I now need to get down to the nitty-gritty to work out the kinks. Time and practice will eventually give me fluency in the French language that I have desired since I was 15 years old.

So where next? What francophone country will be hosting this nomad come October?

Sète, ici Sète

Prochain arrêt ….

Word Vomit

I preface this post with an apology. Please forgive me for my lack of articulation/eloquence, as I am losing my ability to speak the English language…. The problem, however, is that I have yet to arrive at speaking French. The only way to explain this phenomenon is to describe a kind of horrific purgatory, in which I have found myself. Until my brain makes the transition from making direct English/French translations to actually thinking in French I will continue to mélange all the words that exist in my brain into some kind of word vomit.

Not only am I unable to form correct sentences in French, but I am also losing the ability to speak my native tongue. Simple vocab that would normally come easily have turned into complicated  gobbledygook that goes something like this: “Ah! you know, it’s the place where you go to take the think that flies in the sky, how do you call it in English….. “an airport?” “yes!! that’s it!”

Another example of how I’ve come to speak: “My ability to communicate is merde and I’m absolutely fatigued.” My language has become a mix of French words in English sentences, including real French words as well as words that do translate into English, but that you would never really use.” Melange? Fatigued? Who says that??? Well, at the moment (en ce moment), I do.

I’ve experienced this transition before, when I was in Burkina, so I recognize that it is something that must be welcomed, but right now it is the most frustrating. thing. ever.

Entouka, stay tuned.

Biz

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