When we arrived in France last August I was determined to increase my language skills. I thought that this wouldn’t be too hard being the mother of two young girls; surely there would be lots of opportunities to get together with other mothers and talk?
Nope, pas du tout.
I’ve since realised that the opportunities to do this in France are quite different to those in England. But I’ll go into that at another time.
So, I decided what better way to expose yourself to the language than to put yourself on the back of a huge animal, attempt to control it and try and listen to subject specific language at the same time. Yes, that’s the level of stupid I’m at sometimes.
This all started last year when it was La Belle Fille’s birthday. We didn’t know many people at the time and as we where staying in our friends gite I didn’t want to invite lots of kids round to our for a party. So I set her up with a horse riding lesson.
I’m so ignorant of the activity that I didn’t know that there’s actually an English style and a western style. So when driving past a sign saying that there was a pony club and the word ‘Anglais’ I stupidly thought that the option of the English language was available. Yes, again, that’s the level of stupid I’m at sometimes. Really.
I’d gone and arranged the lessons for myself on Thursday nights and La Belle Fridays. I thought this would give me the opportunity to experience it so I could talk it through with her first and allay any of her fears.
On my first day I didn’t realise that you were meant to arrive early to groom the horse, so everything was rushed, particularly as I didn’t have the necessary helmet etc (I was able to borrow one there). This is the difficulty in experiencing things for the first time in another language when you haven’t achieved a high level of fluency. Normally I would have gone somewhere to arrange lessons and been able to think of questions to ask; what do I wear for my first few lessons? What time should I get there? All those relevant things. However when your speaking in your second language you’re concentrating so hard on working out what the other person is saying that you forget everything else.
My first experience on a horse though was marvellous. I literally didn’t stop giggling like a fool throughout. It was exhilarating, and makes all the language difficulties worth while.
My instructor, Céline, finds it very amusing at times that she has an English woman in her class (much my parish priest when I was arranging La Petite’s baptism). I often hear her talking to other students or people in front of me. “All I can say in English is “go” or “stop”, but she says she understand!” I actually find these conversations she has pretty funny; I don’t know if she realises I understand what she’s saying.
She is very patient, repeating the same instructions again and again. I really appreciate that this adds a layer of complexity to the proceedings both for her and other members of the class and she’s born them with good grace throughout.
It was my language skills that created a situation within the class that was a little uncomfortable in fact. When I’d first started to ride they gave me a very docile horse, Teene, who is given to all new riders. However, she doesn’t want to trot. Great in some ways for a beginner, you can be confident that even in the training circle she’s not going to race off and cause a new rider a fright. But trying to get a horse who doesn’t want to go to do so, whilst you’re developing your language skills is hard. Each time Céline gave me an instruction I was having to translate it, whilst at the same time trying to get an animal to do what it didn’t want to do and then do what she was asking me to do.
In this occasion instructions were again being repeated over and over again and then a conversation ensued between Céline and some observers as well as other members of the class. Again Céline was saying, in a jovial way, what it was like dealing with someone who was English. Then she said that she didn’t speak a lot of English again, but this time one of the other learners said in French that she thought it was up to the people coming to live in France to learn the language. Two other members of the class became obviously uncomfortable whilst this conversation continued and, to be honest, so was I.
I had asked the same woman a few weeks before, on my second week actually, for help to put a saddle on (it’s quite complicated and you don’t get it first time). She had become a little brisk and when I’d said that she was very kind to help she’d replied “oui, trop gentil je pense” (yes, too kind I think) and had seemed put out.
When she’d said this recent comment she’d sounded quite stern to my ears, but to be honest I have misread the situation.
After the class my instructrice first asked in front of everyone if I understood and I’d said yes, but I was having to translate, then do the action and make the horse go which was difficult.
Then, as I was unsaddling the horse, one of the other women struck up a conversation with me about something in French, all my conversations at the stables are in French, and then added that her English wasn’t very good. I replied to her that I wanted to improve my French, but that it was ok as I did understand her. I again explained about having to translate and then do the action, as I’d been a little upset by the previous comments as I didn’t want people to think that I’d come to France without bothering to learn the language. Anyway we continued to have a conversation for about ten to fifteen minutes all in French and I think the other woman heard. The next time we met she was extremely helpful and seemed to my eyes a little uncomfortable.
The thing is, although I was put out at the time, I think that people who haven’t learnt a second language and then attempted to function in it outisde of a classroom don’t know what it’s like and their expectations are therefore too unrealistic. For example, sometimes when things feel rushed and i don’t know what I’m doing I get flustered and lose my language skills. If you’re not a language learner you may not recognise this.
I remember years ago I was in a Wilkinson when a shop assistant had told three cashiers the story of some Polish people who had been locked in the store the night before – they’d been in the paint aisle and hadn’t heard the announcement. She finished each telling with the (very) loud declaration “Well, if they want to come to this country they should learn the language shouldn’t they?”
I was so annoyed listening to this as I’d already started learning French to move here and on my many visits had found it frustrating no matter how hard I tried. I still wish I’d said what I’d been thinking; “Don’t you know what it’s like to learn a second language? They probably have learnt it, but as they’re concentrating on labels they missed the announcement over head.”
Uncomfortable situations aside the lessons have really helped to get me out and about and practise my language skills, but it is up to me to focus on subject specific vocabulary to make myself more able to participate. In defence of my classmate my difficulties sometimes means that there is an extra focus in the class and, if I start another new activity in the future, I’ll be sure to read up on it English first to give me some context and try to learn some key vocabulary. After all, she was right. It is my responsibility to learn; I agreed with her even as she was saying it (hence my being upset).
For any of you out there crazy enough to want to give it a go I’ve made these key word posters to go up our staircase for La Petite and I, you can download them here Horse Vocabulary.