Thursday 28 September 2023

One day one photo - 28: Excuse my French - Why I enjoy foreign language conversation exchanges

My day started with an on-line conversation exchange in Italian with Alessandro from Rome, then in Spanish with David from Burgos, and finally in Italian again with Ilaria from Milan. I also belong to a French conversation group that meets up regularly, nearby in West Norwood.

I must say I enjoy speaking in foreign languages. There is something really refreshing about opening up that part of the brain. 

I know that folks in the UK don't tend to be so hot on speaking other languages, and at school the teachers don't have that much enthusiasm for teaching it either. But for me, it is something that I have always enjoyed.

I have seen it as a gateway to many things, and makes quite a difference to the trips and holidays that I go on. With my language skills it makes me able to go to places frequented by the locals, and off the beaten track. When I go on holiday I don't bother with packages or holiday reps to show me the way, but plan my own itinerary based on research. Knowing that I can speak the language means that if I have an issue to deal with I feel confident about sorting it out. I remember a couple of years ago having to call the local breakdown service when I got a burst tyre at the side of the road between Bellagio and Lecco in Italy. A similar thing happened to me in Jaca, in Northern Spain. In both cases I had to make phone calls to people who didn't speak English. So knowing Italian and Spanish, and feeling confident to speak made the difference in this inconvenient situation.

So yes, knowing a foreign language has its practical uses. More significantly for me, it also has a positive effect on my mind because I feel like my brain has moved onto a different channel and I am in a different world! That change definitely has a positive effect on my mental health. In fact, if I go for a few weeks without engaging in some way in a foreign language (be it speaking, listening to the radio, watching TV or reading a book or newspaper) I feel my mind going a bit stale and musty. It's a similar sensation to when I don't do sport for a while and my body feels lardy ahd stodgy.

I wouldn't say that I am the most natural linguist in the world, but I do feel comfortable in languages nowadays. It took a fair bit of hard work and application - doing exercises from grammar books, going to evening classes, studying for exams by correspondence. When I went to live in France more than 30 years ago I had a working knowledge of French but I didn't know the colloquial expressions and knew nothing about Parisian slang. There were quite a few hours spent at dinner parties not knowing what was being discussed or what folks were joking about! There were quite a few moments when I made blunders when expressing myself, and also quite a few misunderstandings! It's a good job I don't get embarrassed easily.

But after a few months of persevering the penny dropped and everything seemed to flow. I have used that same model with Italian and Spanish, though I haven't spent as much as I did in France living in countries where those languages are spoken. Hence these conversation exchanges on-line have come very much in handy.

I must say that in this day and age, learning a foreign language couldn't be easier. As well as books and audio tapes there are lots of people with whom you can have video chats, as well as newspapers on-line, plus foreign films and TV series with subtitles on streaming channels.

So I feel fortunate to have the faculty to communicate in another language, as well as having the means to continue to improve on my skills. 

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