Talking the talk
GENERATION EMIGRATION: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. RUADHAN MAC CORMAIC, DEREK SCALLYand CLIFFORD COONANspeak to those who have made an effort to learn, and others who are getting on without
FRENCH SPEAKER GERRY FEEHILY
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
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.