May 08

Using the Local Language While Abroad

Author: Bri Rodriguez-Cancio

In the quest to "open the minds" of my elementary school-aged children who continue to study Spanish, I decided to throw my bathing suit to the wind and travel North to Montréal during Easter break. My husband thought I should visit a psychiatrist. My rationale was to show my children the importance of speaking more than one language; that it is useful, no matter where you go. Montréal was within driving distance and we own a cargo box for the car, so I updated my packing lists and off we went! (Many reviews on Trip Advisor spoke highly about "Le Square Phillips" which is an apart-hotel. We all loved it!)

Now, you may be asking me, "Does anyone in your family unit speak French?" My response: "Why, yes. Proficiently... moi!" Husband also speaks a small amount, but kids knew nothing. So we prepared them with the absolute basics:

  • Merci = Thank you
  • Bonjour = Good day or a generic "Hello"
  • S'il vous plait = Please
    *We also reminded them very seriously to stay close, and gave them the hotel business card and our cell phone numbers written down for their pockets/purses.

"Perfect Mom" would have run out to the local library or big box store for French language learning DVDs, but I am not "Perfect Mom."

Québec province is truly dedicated to keeping French alive. However, it respects English. Case in point: museum presentations were given in both languages. Now, during this trip, I was the main communicator and translator. I must confess, my French was rusty. But I wanted to show my children that you always try, and that you must be ready to laugh at yourself whenever learning something new.

Use Every Opportunity to Practice!

After checking in, the moment I walked into the room, I assessed the bath towel scene. We needed one more. Now, occasionally, when I search for a word in French, I consider the Spanish word for any clues, as they are both Romance Languages. If I succeed, I can "slide" into the French word. Back to the snippet about the missing towel. I called the Reception rather confidently, and began to ask for an extra towel. The word eluded me completely; I blanked out. I started to feel the flutterings of anxiety, with the inner monologue: "How could I possibly forget such a simple word like 'towel?'" I hemmed and hawed. The receptionist asked if I wanted to speak in English. (Only in Montréal this would occur! Never in France.)

Instead of caving in, I trudged on in French: "No, no, I want to practice my French. How do you say 'towel' in French? We need an additional one."

She graciously reminded me: "une serviette." I repeated the full sentence in French. Hung up the phone, calmed myself, and smiled.

Of course! In Spanish, a towel is "una toalla." And in Spanish, a napkin is "una servieta." Light bulb moment, words newly engraved in my mind. Note to self:

Do... NOT... give up!

I was not so bold an hour later, when my husband tasked me to order takeout pizza--we had arrived on Easter Sunday and had missed the working hours of the closest supermarket (an "IGA" in the main level of the Complexe Desjardins on the Blvd René Lévesque). The gentleman on the phone was so darn nice that I just rattled off in English what we wanted. I felt embarrassed. Looking back, I made myself anxious because I believed the operator would be in a hurry. Wrong attitude.

As the days passed, I continued trying to speak French. The Montréalais do a fine job of "juggling" both French and English. Any time I hesitated to find a word, they were quick to ask in English: "Do you wish to speak in English?" After the takeout incident, I persisted. We visited museums, took the Métro [subway] and the bus, bought souvenirs, lunch, groceries, and I even visited a pharmacy. Now that was an experience--telling your ailments to a pharmacist! But I did it, and she actually complimented me. She said that very few Americans spoke French so fluidly.

The More You Use It...

Lesson learned: the more I spoke, the more confident I became in French. Why is the United States such a mono-lingual stronghold? My children were tacitly impressed with my "skills."
They made the connection: It takes time to become fluent in another language and the more you use it, the better you speak it.

Jump! Immersion School continues to buck the stereotypes of learning another language (the second, or third?) with preschoolers and elementary-aged students. We are the trendsetters. Children can start as young as 2½ years old and classes are available through 12 years of age, for Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. This is not your stodgy language class of years ago; the children are immersed, with fun activities, in a broad spectrum of subject matter, to get them talking, playing, running, dancing, all when they are ready to take that linguistic risk. Imagine speaking effortlessly, no mental "switching" necessary? How about speaking without an American accent, and sounding "like a native?" Yes and yes!

To conclude my linguistic travel story, you may want to know how the children fared: The younger one took the 3 new words like a fish to water. The older one was in a state of shock on the first 2 days. This was the first trip that she did not speak the local language and she had moments of frustration. I gave her my personal tip to try to "slide into French" and she did her best. Overall, the family enjoyed themselves thoroughly and we have vowed to return in the summertime, with warmer weather and longer days. There are so many parks to explore!

Consider the following: If your family is planning to vacation/move abroad, why not take advantage of Jump! Immersion School and get the kids ready? As our Founder, Jackie Sanin, likes to say, "the more you go, the more you'll know."