Tuesday, April 28, 2009

French fried

The whole point of the bike trip was to see cherry and apple blossoms. We were too late, except for a row of rapidly browning blooms just outside the village. But look: infant cherries!

One of the things I’ve discovered about learning and speaking a second language is that it is physically tiring to do for any length of time. It’s not just me – I tutor a couple of different people in English here: they consistently complain of exhaustion by the end of the lesson (cue joke about my personality having that effect on people).

This weekend, I organized a bike trip along the ever-famous rainbows and ponies trail with some friends of ours from Amynah’s institute. The initial group consisted of at least three native English speakers, one other who is more comfortable in English than French, and one French-preferring participant. By Sunday scheduling conflicts and illness had whittled this down to me and three French speakers.

I have gone through entire evenings when French was the only language spoken, and so, as we set out, was not at all thinking the language would be a problem. However, during dinner parties, one is not generally required to maintain a conversation for the entire evening – the dynamics of dinner conversation usually allow for some verbal down-time, as others tell a story, or launch into a debate to which others can be spectators.

On a bike trip with only four cyclists, this was not possible. We quickly broke up into two pairs – my friend Lama biking with a master’s student from her lab, while I led the way alongside their colleague.

Orchards near Westhoffen

As far as I could tell, neither of Lama’s friends spoke a word of English. I therefore spent four hours, pedaling 44 kilometers through the beautiful Alsatian countryside, conversing only in French. The mundane requirements of bicycle navigation robbed me of the ability to wave my hands about to facilitate communication, and so I had to actually concentrate on using the correct tenses that I usually indicate by pointing forward (future), pointing forward and waggling my hand (future conditional), or waving over my shoulder (past). The amount of concentration I had to put into translating my many, many witty anecdotes into French for a new audience meant I nearly rolled directly into the Bruche canal several times.

In any case, by the time we all made it to Molsheim, the French overload and incipient sunstroke had left me a wrung-out mess, sunburned, incoherent, and craving a nap. In contrast, my companions were all fresh as daisies, despite never having biked over 8 kilometers at a stretch before in their lives.

* Of course, the fact that French was also the second language for all three of my fellow cyclists rather undermines my language-is-tiring theory. But I cling to it nonetheless, for otherwise I’d be forced to admit that my relative distress might have something to do with me being roughly 8 years older than them.

No comments: