October 28, 2010

On rusty English, time perceptions, and expanding worlds

So for this post, because I haven't done so for a while, I just want to reflect a little on what time here has been like so far, and how things are right now. I warn you—it's going to be a little bit introspective, so if you're not interested in my in-depth self-analysis my mind as an exchange student, I won't be offended if you don't read on. Soon, I'll be posting some things that account more of my day-to-day life (pictures/descriptions of school, the grocery store, food, etc...), which may be more interesting to read.

So I'll commence with something strange I've noticed. For some reaon, when I write in English, I've found that it's a lot harder to write succinctly.  When I write something and then read it over again, I think to myself “good god, what would Koops (my former English teacher) say about this?” I'll sometimes use seven or ten words to say something I could have said in three,  and as I have been writing this I've already made a bunch of little mistakes (and corrected them as well, I hope) that I don't think I'd have made if I were still immersed in English. Compound words become two words and vice versa; I put apostrophes where they shouldn't go; I get my tenses and subject-verb agreement mixed up. It takes me longer to write what I mean to say in English-- I've been deleting and rewriting sentences over and over.  

But the thing is, it's not like my English is being replaced by my French. My French is still very basic-- simple conversations still consist of many errors on my part; I can only use simple verb tenses, and I often forget words people here learned as little kids like « towel » or « jump » or « remember ». So that makes it weird-- my English is getting rusty and my French is still feeble.

People who've done foreign exchange programs have told me that after a while of being immersed in the new language, it feels like you're forgetting your native language. You start to think in the foreign language, because you're using it so much. I feel that happening-- sort of, sometimes. My thoughts have become a mixture of English for the more complicated things, but for simple stuff I can think in French if I want to. It's very weird to have another voice in my head who knows French—maybe not perfect French, but French all the same. And even weirder to know that it will start to run things more and more as my French gets better.

So, if it seems like I've been rambling, that's why. But I'm going to ramble a little more for a while, and talk about perceptions. First of all, my perception of time.   Pretty much, for the past two months that I've been here, it has been very strange. Sometimes, time seems to be whizzing by, but at others the days seem twice as long. But these differences are not regular at all—there's no pattern. There will be an hour that seems like ten minutes, but then the next ten minutes could seem like an hour. It's a hard thing to describe....

I guess, the thing is, when you're immersed in a foreign language, in a foreign set of surroundings, your perceptions of things in general-- not just time-- are turned upside down. Starting the minute you step onto the plane and watch your country—your world of familiarity-- disappear, your world turns into something completely different. 

It starts out small.

When I got off the plane, my world consisted of the airport, then the inside of the taxi as we got our first look of Brussels, then the hotel where all the exchange students stayed the first night. That hotel was like a little bubble. Everything besides that hotel and its front yard-- the rest of neighborhood, the rest of the city, the rest of the country, the rest of the continent-- was completely new and unfamilar.

My first ride through Brussels with my host family was the same way. My world became the car, trying to converse with the family of people who I would be staying with for the next year. I peered out the car windows, watching new and unfamiliar streets, cars, buildings-- and listening to a new and mostly unfamiliar language being spoken all around me.

As I followed my host family into the house, took my first look at my new room, I knew that  house was the starting point, the first world that I would become familiar with for the year. And at the beginning, my world was that big. The house.

My second day, I went into Linkebeek with my host family, and speaking slow, very simple French, they gave me a tour. I looked at all the different paths, and wondered how I would ever find my way around. It was my first glimpse into Linkebeek, a slightly larger world.

And gradually, my world began to expand. I began taking runs around Linkebeek and the surrounding area, starting out very simply, only going places where I knew I could find my way back. I went to the grocery store with my host mom, on bike rides with my host dad, on a walk with my host brother Gaëtan and to a hockey game to watch my host brothers Quentin and Diego play.

I entered the world of school, another place that started off completely foreign, where I didn't feel sure of where I was of what I was supposed to be doing, but it slowly became more and more familiar.

Riding bus 43 to and from school was the same way-- it started out as a whole bunch of unfamiliar streets and turns-- and a lot of traffic. But after days and days of the same route, it became more and more familar.

In fact, it's been the mass transit system that has been a huge help for me to branch into new worlds. Each time I take a new tram or bus, I study the map for a long time to make sure it'll take me the right place. Sometimes I get on the internet to find my route and then write it down. I worry at first about about getting lost, about ending up someplace where I don't know where I am.

After a couple of repetitions, I feel I have mastered it. I think to myself, "I can do this." It's not that hard. No big deal.

Ironically, it's those times that screw me up. Like, for example, when I took the train, coming back from Louvain-la-Neuve University. I thought everything was good--I felt confident that I could get back home. But then I realized that all the station names were in Dutch, and that I'd been on the train for 45 minutes. And I started to second-guess myself. Good thing, because if I'd have stayed on that train I would've ended up in Aalst, about 30 kilometers outside of Brussels. But oh well.

Anyway, expanding worlds. I know that whatever new and unfamiliar place I go, things will be like that--it's natural. But on this scale, when two months ago I had no idea that bus 43 would take took me to school or that I could also take bus 43 to Heros, then tram 4 to the Grand Place, and take the train back home if I wanted to, it's a pretty cool feeling to feel my world opening up like it is now.

And it continues to do so. Next week my host family and I are going to Ardéche, France, and then to Paris. I'll begin to see other parts of the world of Europe. More on that after it happens.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Austin
    I understand completely what you're going through...you've put it into words very well. Great post!
    Mme. Copeland