Archived entries for bilingualism

6 years and counting

Yesterday was a special day for me because it marked 6 years since I first arrived in Belgium. I’d had a fantastic weekend with friends in London en route, and then I took the Eurostar, for the first time, to Brussels.

Upon arriving, I’d arranged to meet my landlady in advance of moving in so I could store my things in the house. Being completely new to the city, I showed a taxi driver the address, which he looked at and nodded in a confident manner before proceeding to drive off in completely the wrong direction.

“Can I just check…was it the Avenue Albert Jonnart in Ixelles you were after, mate? Or the other one? No, hang on, No…I was thinking you were wanting the other Avenue Albert, the big one – no worries, I’ll just turn around right here in the middle of this lane and put my foot down even harder, and we’ll be there in no time!”

Unfamiliar streets whizzed past and I found myself at the door of what was to be my new accomodatiom for the next 6 months. Dropping my stuff at the house was brief, because I only had with me what I could carry, and then it was just a me, a rucksack to take with me to the Youth Hostel – no, really – and the rain.

I sat in Pain Quotidian to dry out, ordered a coffee, and wondered what on earth I’d let myself in for.

Fortunately, I didn’t need to sit there contemplating my next move for too long. Thanks to some contacts at BBC Wales where I’d recently done a work placement, I had found out about a Welsh reception held in Brussels every year to mark St David’s Day. So I went along, grateful to be somewhere that was a bit “home from home” on my first night in a new city abroad. I’ve been going to the Gwyl Dydd Dewi reception every year, a sort of annual marker of my time here. See below a photo from this year’s event.

Carwyn-Jones-St-Davids-Day-2013

First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones opening the reception

St-Davids-Day-reception-2013

People enjoying the Welsh lamb, cheese and beer in the grand surroundings of the Bibliotheque Solvay

Getting the message

I shop for herbal teas bilingually. Don’t worry, it’s not one of my chat-up lines; I can’t begin to imagine an appropriate response to such a declaration (“Really? I get my fruit and veg in Hebrew, myself”).
No, it’s just that in the health food shop near where I live, one of the girls working there is Francophone, and the other comes from the Flemish part of the country, and so it’s easier for her if we speak in English. So it’s often the case that I end up saying things twice, once in French and then once again in English. It’s one of the charming aspects of life in Belgium which, I think, brings a bit of variety to everyday life. Obviously another reason I support bilingualism is that I’m from Wales, where we live life in Welsh and English all the time. Even the sheep are bilingual.

welsh-sheep.jpg

Getting the message across in another language can, though, cause more confusion that one might have bargained for. Translation’s not always easy, even for the European parliament, with it’s army of interpreters for the 23 official languages of the EU. When Yulia Tymoshenko (below), prime minister of Ukraine, came to visit yesterday, they had to resort to the stop-start method of waiting for an interpretation to be read from English to Ukranian and vice-versa.

It causes a bit of trouble at the individual level, too. I should know, I nearly found out the hard way. Last week I had quite a nasty cold, and so I left work a bit early and went to the pharmacy. I started speaking in French, trying to explain that I was blocked up and that I’d like something to relax my lungs. There’s a tightness in my chest, I explained, and I’d like to ease it a bit.
So after a bit of thought, the pharmacist asked if it was asthma that I was talking about, because I’d have to get an inhaler from the doctor, she couldn’t give me one just like that. I said no, sorry, I wasn’t being clear; it wasn’t asthma, I’ve got things for that. We discussed a bit more what it might be that I was after; me trying to explain that I wanted something to clear and relax my lungs, her trying her best to understand. On reflection, perhaps I used the word “relax” with too much emphasis. Eventually the pharmacist asked me my maternal language. As it happened, she was actually Flemish, and found English easier than French. Thank heavens we managed to reach an understanding. Instead of wanting a simple flu remedy, the pharmacist thought that I had been asking for muscle relaxant.



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