On Being Bi…

Bilingual that is…

Jokes and cheesy metaphors aside, my last post (greatly inspired by this) was mainly an allegory of how I was too lazy and never well-disciplined enough to learn French properly and how the way French is taught over here is really getting in the way of students liking and using the language actively. You cannot learn a language from books, you cannot like a language when it’s being shoved down your throat by frustrated teachers who think English is overrated. You learn a language by using it, by immersing in it. In junior high, the books we used were at least 25 years old. The language in them was outdated, with too big of a focus on grammar and almost none on vocabulary. We were not introduced to literature, pop culture (movies, comics, music, stand-up comedy, you name it), the books had been passed down for I don’t know how many generations, they were old, the pictures were black and white, they told almost nothing of French history, culture, the cities, the personalities, modern life, sports, slang… In highschool, we had French students visiting us and they did not speak the language in our books.

Bottom line, the system and the teachers didn’t know how to sell their stuff. We played hookey so much, our junior high French teacher forgot she had class with us. And be honest: have you ever met kids with self-discipline so motivated that they take up something completely new on their own and just because? Maybe I’m making excuses for my failure to be proactive about learning French. The teachers thought it was so great, though! Of course they did! They had probably learned it during the Communist regime and it was a rare connection to an outside world they didn’t know, it was a sort of an escape for them. For us, it was a burden. They never tried to explain, to make us curious about it, to show us all the interesting things behind the language. Ya know: all that stuff that makes teachers good. To them it was beautiful and rich and nothing more, and because they liked it (did they?), we had to like it too, they took that for granted.

The fact that I managed to squeeze through the system (up to a certain point) with mediocre French says something about the educational process in Romania. So now I only work with one language: English. This can’t last long, as interpreters are always under pressure to add new languages. But for now, my Romanian A <> English B is still a bankable combination.

For now…

But they don’t seem to like us of the puny language combinations in Brussels. I’ve heard people say quite directly “yes, well, we, in the bigger booths, we have to add a language every few years, we have to have at least 4 or 5 languages in our combination, and it bothers us to see that our colleagues from the newer booths (hint much?) have only one or two languages. We do appreciate all their work and their excellent retour, but…”

And this is where I come to the point of this post. You see, we had to make up an ambiguous and funky, yet not offensive, name for these people, because they’re so annoying! Bilinguals, people who grew up speaking languages, who had languages all around them, who grew up in Jo’burg, spent their gap year in Argentina, had a government-funded scholarship in Madrid, an aunt in Estonia and spoke to their German cousins on the phone every week. They went to college in France and had their MA in London, spent three years teaching English in Lisbon, freelanced in Geneva and now spend all their summers between Athens and Palermo, while our parents bankrupted themselves to send us on a three-month Erasmus mobility in Aix-en-Provence. You see my point.

I would hate them if I didn’t envy them and their perfect lives so much. “My dad is Belgian and my mom is Swedish, my dad is Spanish and my mom is French, my dad is English and my mom is Spanish” etc. How is life fair? It’s not, but you don’t see me complaining! (right…) Bottom line, we here in this strange corner of the woods had to work harder to learn things people in the West take for granted. We had to work for our languages, while their parents f***ed and produced a bilingual baby.

I know it’s not as simple as I’m trying to make it look. Most interpreters actually don’t come from bilingual families. But they certainly do have more resources, they travel from a very young age, they have more solid educational systems, good quality public TV and, let’s admit it, more open minds (except when they make comments like the one above). I really don’t know a lot of people in Romania who, out of the blue, go: “I think I’ll take a year off from college and spend it in Peru just to learn Spanish.” (When I was 5, I asked my mom if I could walk to kindergarten alone. She got mad and didn’t speak to me for a whole day). They’re born with wings, we need to grow ours. They run in an open field, we’re on an obstacle course.

Then, to hear something like that coming from a colleague and a professional I admire… I’m not trying to downplay the work of the older booths, on the contrary. The quality of their work, the expanse of their knowledge, their style, their charm, the ease with which they express themselves in all of their languages, these things never cease to amaze me. But let me tell you something: the Romanian booth kicks some pretty serious @$$, in spite of us not being as bi as other people are.

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French and I Are Over

But we’re still friends…

You may have figured it out from my blogroll that I am an interpreter. Mainly. I also translate, because when that really nice money from interpreting comes in, I really don’t want to tarnish it with measly expenses, like rent. (Yeah, I’m so rich, I still rent…).

Anyway, you can’t do an MA in interpreting without at least two C languages. Mine were English and French. In the meantime, English became my B and I almost completely discarded French. A good B is worth quite something on the private market and the Romanian booth at the EU institutions still accepts freelancers with just a B (or at least 2 C’s) (for now, and if you pass the test, of course). Shame on me to have done away with such a beautiful language, I know, but it was never true love and French knew it… Marriage of convenience, really…

With English, it was so different. It wasn’t immediate attraction, no love at first sight. Back when I was young, French was the popular kid. English was the weird new kid whose parents nobody knew and everyone was afraid to play with it, even though all the older kids openly admitted that French was kind of pain in the ass and an attention whore. So I was brave enough to approach English myself. We hit it off almost immediately and it has never disappointed me to this day. We have the same mind frame, we’re both pragmatic, to-the-point, no bullshit (as you can see from this blog :P), yet still capable of sensitivity and poetry when the mood strikes us. English is one of my best friends to this day and we have a mutually beneficial relationship, so to speak 🙂

With French, however, different story… I ignored it as much as I could, but it hasn’t gone away to this day. Finally, by 6th grade it insisted on making its insidious presence felt in my life on a weekly basis, at least. Not gonna lie to you, the kid is a looker (or sounder, whatever), we enjoyed some good moments together. But you know the old furniture that takes up a lot of space and doesn’t go with the decor or anything else you may have in your house, but you have to keep it there because it’s a family heirloom and it has sentimental value and shit? Yeah, French is like that.

Oh, France’s exquisite culture, France’s glorious history, the teachers ranted. France has always been Romania’s ally, blah blah blah. See what I mean? Popular kid: my parents have money, my family knows people, I’m connected, look at my flashy clothes and shiny car, pay attention to me, that sort of thing! French has an attitude problem!

It’s not all French’s fault. That’s what happens to people when everyone tells them they’re great: they either turn into dictators who insist on taking over everyone’s lives, or they finally see that they’re not exactly as cool as they thought they were and get all frustrated when someone else steals their thunder.

My relationship with French was all flash and no substance. It insisted on addressing me in the most confusing terms, speaking in metaphors and abusing idioms. It thinks so highly of its grammar and its history, it forgets to live in the present. Soon after we started, I realized French was an old soul who had trouble finding its place in the world. I even felt sorry for it for a while and half-heartedly accepted its pointless conversations, its empty quoting of classics, its refusal to open up and see the world changing around it. So we dragged it on for years and years. In spite of my ongoing relationship with English and my flirting with Italian and German, we ended up at that point in a relationship where there is no going back: you’re stuck with each other. I managed to fake faithfulness quite well until recently, I even fooled myself into believing we had feelings for each other.

But it didn’t work out. French, self-absorbed as it is, realized it was too good for me, and I finally figured out that we didn’t fit together at all, all we ever did was annoy each other. Counseling said it would be better for me to stick with just English for now. They also recommended trying to rekindle my relationship with French in the future, but the thing is: we get along better now that we don’t have to put up with each other anymore.

I recently started a little fling with Spanish (doesn’t everyone?), so let’s wait and see where that will take us.