Saturday, April 19, 2014

Reflections on Montreal: 1,4, and 5

Avid reader Kerri writes: 

"Considering that I will be taking my 11 year old daughter to Haiti in the summer, where french creole is the language, and which we know none of...I'd be interested in all of the above topics but especially 1, 4 & 5."

Ask and ye shall receive! I'm so glad the two of you have this chance to travel together - it will definitely be one of the most memorable experiences she'll have from childhood, and hopefully will continue to strengthen the already-strong bond between the two of you. I can't wait to hear how it goes and all you learn while you're there!

1. How being a clear outsider in a new setting builds empathy (involves power structures in the US)

First, it's impossible for me to give an honest account of what it is like being a stranger in a strange land without noting that, here in the United States, most of the country's structures are set up so that I, as a straight white male, feel 100% comfortable. When we crossed the border back into the United States, I instantly felt more comfortable, which I'm not sure I would feel if I were somebody else. Many African Americans have reported feeling this same sense of relief upon entering Africa, because they feel like for once they are not seen as unwelcome or "other" by legal, political, and/or social forces.

Second, traveling as an American is never the same as being an immigrant to America. As Americans, we are sometimes looked down upon due to various stereotypes but, more often than not, we are welcome as tourists. There are no real long-term pressures to conform, and there is nobody actively seeking to have us removed from the country.

With all of that said, there is something really powerful about looking around and knowing you don't really belong here. This manifests itself in hundreds of very small ways: Being in a restaurant and realizing that you don't know what to order because you don't understand the menu, people asking you a lot of questions that you don't know how to answer, walking down the street and not even having a sense of what anybody else was talking about around you, not being able to make small talk with the people who cleaned our room or the receptionists or cashiers or anybody else, really - we weren't able to adequately express our appreciation for all the nice things people did on our behalf or our interest in the lives of others. On this trip, because we spent much of the time walking down the street, hand in hand, I suppose we looked like I might have the answers to some of these questions, all asked in French:

Which way is the insectarium?
Which way is the lake?
At what time do the parking meters stop charging?

My answers to #1 and #2 were "that way" (in English), and #3 was "je ne sais pas". But I was also asked a handful of other questions that I didn't understand, to which I replied, "je ne parle pas francais." It's one thing to be able to say, "hey, I'm sorry, but I have no idea" and another to basically end the conversation.

In any case, being unable to communicate with people in the way you'd like happens to be a great catalyst for considering the plight of others. (Caution: It's not the same; it's never the same. I wouldn't ever say, "yes, I know exactly how ___ feels because I, too, have felt this same way while traveling.) Feeling out of place is a good reminder that there are millions of people who feel out of place in America. Remembering that we're feeling out of place by choice makes this even more powerful - think of the people who feel out of place and have no choice in the matter.

This is all a fancy way of saying that stepping out of our comfort zone is generally a good thing, particularly if - like me - your comfort zone is really comfortable, because it reminds us that all this comfort is something we often take for granted.

But wait - wouldn't this be possible without international travel? Couldn't we just go to another part of the United States, or even another part of our own city?

4. My obsession with language and, in this case, inability to grasp even the most obvious dialectical differences (involves some technical linguistics and, ultimately, why we went to Montreal over, say, Toronto, or another part of New Haven)

I spent the summer of 2001 in Puerto Rico, studying music and dance (because college is great), and while I was there I met a man named Ali who sold scented oils on the streets of Old San Juan. He was born in South Carolina and called himself a citizen of the world, and we had a couple conversations that have stuck with me. The vendor next to him was from Argentina (call him Carlos), and Carlos and I had been talking about Argentina because I had spent a previous summer working and traveling there. Ali asked me about my travels and I asked him about his, and at one point he asked me why I did all this traveling. I replied that I wanted to get another perspective about how people lived in different places, and he said, "well, if you really want to see how people live and experience the world differently, you don't need to come all the way over here. Go to the American South. Stay with a black family in Mississippi. See what their life is like."

Ali's point is a great one. Did I (do we?) travel far away to forget that there are immense differences at home? Was I uncomfortable with the prospect of experiencing firsthand the sense of being an outsider so close to home?

Probably. But there's also something else: I love language in general, and the Spanish language in particular. I wanted to learn to speak Spanish really well. I wanted to hear the differences in how people spoke Spanish in different places. I found it fascinating that people in different places could have the same thought - the same word in their head, even - and that their mouths could consistently produce the sounds in such unique and beautiful ways. I wanted to be surrounded by a bubble of language.

So that's why our family went to Montreal: I wanted us to be surrounded by another language. Yes, we went to some fun attractions and had fun at the park and ate poutine, but this was really because I wasn't going to be able to convince my kids to sit still on a park bench and just listen to people (also, because there is some fantastic stuff to do with kids in Montreal and I wanted the kids to get the most out of it.)

On this trip, as on so many others, I found myself obsessing over both the phonetic (how it sounds) and social (how people use language to interact with one another) aspects of language

In Montreal, "bonjour" is pronounced, at least 50% of the time, as "bonshour" (the j is not vocalized.)

Vowels after a nasal consonant are often nasalized and seem to be formed differently from what I've heard before, which I can only due justice by referring to the "main" as in "whatcha doin, main?"

In terms of other differences between Parisian and Quebecois French, I have no idea. I looked it up afterward but I didn't recall hearing any of it firsthand; it is fascinating to think that these accents most likely sound completely different to native speakers of French, but I could listen to somebody for an hour and not be able to tell where they're from.

5. How we grappled with culturally appropriate code-switching and never quite figured it out (what we learned and didn't learn about being non-French speakers in a French-speaking city)

This primarily involves the social aspects of language.

Everybody we met spoke French to one another and, initially, to us. After three days, I never figured out the etiquette of how to tell people that we don't speak French or whether to let it become known through blank stares or badly pronounced, mis-timed ouis and nons. I understand about 50% of what people say to me, and about 10% of what is said around me, but when it's time to speak, I can't really communicate much other than "I don't know", "yes", "no", and "I am a pineapple." Throughout our trip, we tried greeting people with:
* "Good morning" (to get the point across),
* "Bonjour, good morning" (in an attempt to get our point across but show a little deference first), and
* "Bonjour" (which did not get our point across and was often followed by a French question, a quick yes/no reply or blank response from me, and then a lot of English.)

Then, after having an entire conversation with somebody in English, some folks would wrap it up in French, which seemed to be a reminder that, hey, we're still in Quebec, and the language here is still French.

In any case, though code-switching is something most of us to do some degree, this trip required a level of code-switching that I don't yet understand very well - it reminded me of when I was first learning Spanish and found myself in all Spanish-speaking situations, and I didn't know whether the more respectful thing was to butcher the language (look, I'm not going to force my language onto you) or not (look, I'm not going to butcher your language and pretend like I'm doing either of us a favor here.) My response to that set of awkward circumstances was to get better at Spanish really fast, but I don't know how much time I'll have to get better at French right now, or whether that's the best way for me to choose to spend my time. But next time we're here I'll probably figure out more of the rules, and we'll see where things go from there. 

Any advice here? Does anybody out there have a good way of letting people know you respect and love their language but have no idea how to use it to communicate?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Montreal: Choose your own adventure

Hello, friends!

The kids and I just spent a few days in Montreal. We had a great time, but that's not a very insightful post in itself. I have a lot of insights from this trip, but don't want to write 10 pages of insights. What do you want to know about?

1. How being a clear outsider in a new setting builds empathy (involves power structures in the US)

2. How direct experiences such as travel are so much more effective at building academic background knowledge than just about everything else (involves anecdotes about the trip that will stick, and why)

3. If I were to take a class to Montreal, how would we prepare? (involves Rafe Esquith)

4. My obsession with language and, in this case, inability to grasp even the most obvious dialectical differences (involves some technical linguistics and, ultimately, why we went to Montreal over, say, Toronto)

5. How we grappled with culturally appropriate code-switching and never quite figured it out (what we learned and didn't learn about being non-French speakers in a French-speaking city)

6. The nexus of circumstances that have led us to be so fortunate to be able to take this trip in the first place (involves why we will never take this sort of opportunity for granted)

All of the above, of course, involve funny and touching anecdotes about Barbara and Sebastian.

Vote in the comments! Or send me an e-mail! I'm happy to write about any of this but think putting all of it together defeats the purpose of sharing any of it. Let me know what you want to know, and I'm happy to oblige :)