Newly-arrived Katie Read is struggling to get her foreign voice box in gear but has some useful tips for keeping taxi fares low.
Is it irrational, as a newcomer to Belgium, to take refuge in the nearest Irish bar, to listen into every conversation for snippets of English, or begin a bizarre face-checking ritual whereby you try to ascertain the mother tongue of the nearest fun-looking individual?
An unsuccessful encounter
My first encounter with a Belgian was my least successful so far, which is something I am strangely thankful for. The taxi driver, hearing my faltering French accent, ‘forgot’ his way to the Avenue Louise from the Eurostar terminal, a five minute journey which should have cost EUR 6 but ended up costing EUR 16.
His theatrical ‘I have no idea where I am’ hand gestures fooled no one, but I hadn’t yet acquired the vocabulary to form the sentence: “Your acting is worse than your driving, mate, and that’s saying something.”
So I learned a trick. Practise pronouncing the name of the road first. Stupid? Maybe. Expensive? No. And your pronunciation will improve in no time. Works like a charm.
The voice-box needs maintenance
Having studied French for more than a decade I was surprised to find that I spent much of my first week in Belgium with a small bleating mechanism wedged in my throat which seemed only to know the words ‘merci’, ‘s’il vous plait’ and ‘pardon’. My hands grew adept at pointing to things I wanted, with the result that I became a fidgeting mute with a stupid smile pinned to her face, a smile that wanted to say “I come in peace” but on reflection probably said “I will run away if you try and talk to me.”
Over the weeks I have realised that the voice-box needs maintenance. A fuse blew somewhere in my mind as soon as I stepped into the French and Flemish world, I was an English plug trying to force myself into a Belgian socket without an adaptor.
Savouring Brussels life
So I learned from that too. I shut up for a week, took a big gulp of Brussels life and just savoured it. I sat imprisoned in the Parc de Bruxelles for three hours on Belgian National Day while the parade went on (and on) and listened to the hordes of francophone people around me bemoaning our unanticipated confinement whilst fire engine after army truck after horse after soldier came marching by – my first lesson on how to complain loudly in French.
I wrote a script the first time I knew I was going to have to speak French for more than ten seconds. Joining the gym is no walk in the park wherever you are, but now that I was doing it in a different country I knew I had to prepare for every eventuality.
Learning the script, too, was all in the name of vocal chord renovation. And having successfully opened my mouth for the first time in a week, having joined the most reasonably priced of the two gyms I said my piece to, I sauntered down the street and had a fifteen minute conversation in French with a guy trying to get me to donate to charity.
Tricked into speaking French
Six weeks on, I am almost at the end of Harry Potter et le prisonnier d’Azkaban, translating French news articles into English without relying on wordreference.com every ten seconds, and watching the Belgian news every few nights.
I have babysat for two gorgeous French girls, been tricked into speaking French by my wonderful landlady, and been tested in the pub by new friends. Somebody recently turned to me and said, “You understand a hell of a lot more than you speak, don’t you.”
And the answer is yes, vocal chord renovation is still underway, give me time, and give me confidence, and maybe the French voice box will one day have the same character as the English one.