Generation Emigration

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens abroad

Talking the talk

Getting to grips with the local language can be one of the biggest challenges faced by emigrants as they settle into their new life abroad. RUADHÁN MAC CORMAIC , DEREK SCALLY and CLIFFORD COONAN speak to those who have made an effort to learn, and others who are getting on without.

Fri, Aug 10, 2012, 10:32

   

Getting to grips with the local language can be one of the biggest challenges faced by emigrants as they settle into their new life abroad. RUADHÁN MAC CORMAIC , DEREK SCALLY and CLIFFORD COONAN speak to those who have made an effort to learn, and others who are getting on without

FRENCH SPEAKER GERRY FEEHILY

Gerry Feehily: "Having two languages is like having two eyes – you can see perfectly well with one, but with both you get perspective."

I’ve been living in France for 23 years. I blame Channel 4. When it started transmitting in 1982, I lived on late-night French films, with aloof men and black-eyed women eating and drinking outdoors. In Donegal such an activity would mean being attacked by wasps and flies.

Despite this, I dropped French after first year in UCD in 1986. As I sat in the language lab mangling conjugations, my mouth just couldn’t make the appropriate shapes to produce the French sounds that rang so beautifully on the Boulevard St Michel.

By 1989, I’d met a French girl. We moved into a studio in a run-down neighbourhood to the north of Paris, miles away from the Latin Quarter where the waiters aloofly refused to understand a word I said.

My girlfriend spoke English but we developed a pidgin. “Mon amour, I’ll go acheter du vin.” I endured TV game shows and quizzes to learn numbers and banter. At dinners, I would strain to understand. French seemed to me like a glamorous party to which the bouncers barred the way.

After a year of such humiliations, one glass of wine too many produced a strange click in my head. Aside from its intoxicating effects, I realised it helped me speak French without having to think about what I would like to say in English. For the first time, the French je ne sais quoi-ness was now something I could grasp.

Having two languages is, in the words of critic George Steiner, like having two eyes – you can see perfectly well with one, but with both you get perspective. Not only do the French come out in sharp 3D through your Irish gaze, but Ireland, with all its darkness and light, becomes another country.

Gerry Feehily (44) from Bundoran, Co Donegal, is a Paris-based author and journalist – In conversation with Ruadhán Mac Cormaic 

NON-FRENCH SPEAKER: SIMON McCARTHY

Simon McCarthy: "In the first few weeks, you find yourself meek and shy. If anybody speaks in French, you want the ground to swallow you."

I was working for an agency in London and they transferred me to the Paris office last summer. I was lucky in that there was a support system in place and the account I work on is in English. I didn’t have to speak French at first.

At that point it was a relief, but now I think it’s a hindrance. I wish I had integrated more and spoke the language.

In the first few weeks, you find yourself meek and shy. If anybody speaks in French, you want the ground to swallow you. It made life difficult.

Every Saturday I’d go to the local food market, but I found buying quantities difficult. You’d always come home with a kilo of turkey breast or something else you didn’t need. There was no way of explaining what you wanted. It was funny, but also frustrating.

I had lived in Spain for a year – my degree was in Spanish – so I was aware that it would be difficult moving to a country with a very different culture. I was patient with myself. Yes, Paris would be fun, but it was going to take time. What you give you get back.

Simon McCarthy (28) from Fermoy, Co Cork, works as a digital account director for Neo@Ogilvy in Paris. – In conversation with Ruadhán Mac Cormaic 

GERMAN SPEAKER MAURICE REDMOND

Maurice Redmond with his wife: "One of the benefits of living in a foreign country is you get the language fluent for free, far better than you can study it."

I moved first to Munich 10 years ago, where my girlfriend at the time was from, with no German at all, thinking, “How difficult can it be?” I started afternoon German courses and it was a steep learning curve. It took about a year until I felt comfortable. I mainly had German friends and I made an effort to only speak German, which helped.

I’ve been in Berlin for two years and the common language is English. Often people are surprised I speak German. It’s possible to get by without it here but one of the benefits of living in a foreign country is you get the language fluent for free, far better than you can study it. Without it, you miss out on a lot of opportunities, friendship and jokes, the banter that makes you feel at home.

I’d say it takes two years to learn the language, or one if you really make an effort. In about a year you can go into a bakery and get the bread you wanted, not make do with whatever they give you.

Maurice Redmond (37) from Artane in Dublin runs his own design and concept studio in Berlin. – In conversation with Derek Scally mauriceredmond.com

NON-GERMAN SPEAKER AMANDA SPENCER

Amanda Spencer: "Friends at home were funny about me moving to Berlin in June without German."

Friends at home were funny about me moving to Berlin in June without German. One reminded me that my primary selling point is that I can talk, and asked what I was going to do when that was stripped away? I gave it some thought, but people here were more positive and I had friends to help with the start-up phase.

I did French at school, have a bit of Spanish and used to debate in Irish. People tend to have negative associations with German that they learned in school – the rigid grammar or the harsh sound, but hearing it around me is actually nice.

I’ve been quite lucky working with Maurice Redmond, who speaks fluent German, and I’ve a decent network of other German-speaking friends. The slight barrier to day-to-day interaction is, for Irish in particular, quite uncomfortable as you want to be as engaged and polite as you can. If there is a negative reaction from the other side though, it’s been well concealed. As soon as you engage someone with English, they switch to English very quickly.

I am surprised at the number of people who are here long-term without German. I’m doing some online learning and if things go well, will definitely take lessons.

Amanda Spencer (33) provides tech start-ups with animated content that promotes their brand to attract investor interest. – In conversation with Derek Scally. See bigheadbureau.com

CHINESE SPEAKER KIERAN FITZGERALD

Keran Fitzgerald: "I’ve become good at Chinese by immersing myself in the language, and by making friends."

My job at the Jiuzhai Valley National Park involves advising the local authorities on sustainable tourism development, as well as international marketing and dealing with travel agents and foreign media. I speak very little English when I’m in the park. Separately, I organise homestays and local ecotourism development with families and villages, and work with a local orphanage.

My connection to the Chinese language came with the job. I was working at Merrill Lynch in Dublin, but was looking for international work. I came here with a Fás programme and that gave us some language learning for a few weeks in Dublin. The first six months here I learned myself, then I had five hours lessons a week for four months.

I’ve become good at it by immersing myself in the language, and by making friends. There were a few foreigners around the park, but after the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008 they all left, and by June of that year I could converse very well. There is no way I could do as much in my work without being able to speak Chinese. I read a little Chinese, enough to send QQ (a Twitter-style messaging service) and instant text messages, but not enough to read a newspaper. I can read a few hundred Chinese characters.

The dialect is very difficult here, but I now understand it better than I would understand someone from Beijing speaking Chinese. Many people here are Tibetan who tend to speak a simpler version of Chinese, and I’ve learned some Tibetan. When I go into the grasslands, I have to speak a different dialect again which is like a completely different language.

Kieran Fitzgerald (32) from Castleknock in Dublin lives in Sichuan Province in southwest China. – In conversation with Clifford Coonan 

NON-CHINESE SPEAKER BRENDAN BROPHY

Brendan Brophy: "I speak English all day in work and the last thing I want to do when I’m finished is to learn Chinese."

I came out to be a chef at the Dublin Exchange restaurant in Shanghai back in 1994. It was an English-language environment, and the people out front were English-speaking bankers and lawyers. In those days they wanted English-speaking service staff. They absolutely did not want us to speak Chinese; they wanted our ability to cook. We were known as foreign experts.

The guy I came out to work for offered Chinese lessons, but after the first class the excuses started and people dropped out. I was embarrassed being the only student in a one-on-one situation, so I knocked that one on the head. The most Chinese I learned was in the first three weeks, the courtesy stuff, and how to say “hello” and “goodbye”. I can get around in a taxi and in the markets, but I can’t sit down and have a conversation, even though I understand a lot.

I asked one of the guys in one of my bars here to turn off the air conditioning yesterday, and learned the word for that in Chinese, and I thought I should get lessons again. But frankly, I speak English all day in work and the last thing I want to do when I’m finished is to learn Chinese.

That said, I wish I spoke it better and I’m jealous of those who get sent out by companies to China and are given three months to just learn Chinese.

My second son Keelan was born last month and his mother is Chinese. I’m very happy that he will grow up with both languages. Kids are like sponges – he’ll get English from me and Chinese from his mother, Joyce.

Brendan Brophy co-owns a number of bars in Shanghai, including The Irishman and The Camel. – In conversation with Clifford Coonan.

Have you got to grips with the local language where you live? Share your linguistic experiences with us in the comments section below.

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