I really believe that we all have insight and inspiration to share with The Everyday Language Learner community and so it is exciting to be able to hear from readers on occasion and to be able to share their insights and experiences with all of you. We’ve heard from Gail and Clarence in earlier posts and today we have the priviledge of hearing from Christina Schierling. Christina mentioned one of the things she did to help her escape the English bubble as an expat in France and today she shares her black belt experience with us all. Enjoy and make sure and drop down and leave a comment when you finish reading.
This is the Japanese word meaning “begin” or “commence.” I heard it like an
electric jolt and stared into the grimly focused expression of my opponent. I do
not remember the color of the eyes, only their intent. Having just learned some
defensive techniques, we were to grapple with our respected nemeses and
wrestle them to the ground until their defenses were neutralized. Even thinking of
this word now causes a primal corner of my mind to jump and my reflexes to go
Outside it was a chill November evening in Rennes, a city in northern France. I
was wrapped in a white martial arts robe cinched up with a stiff cloth belt. The
mat under my bare feet was cool and yielding, but I knew instinctively that it
would rise up to hit me like a massive fist if I should allow myself to loose my
footing for even a moment.
During the split second after my French Judo instructor barked this word into the
tense silence, I wondered again what I was doing here and why I was doing this
I am not by nature a competitive sports-person. I am no martial artist and I had a
recent saber-inflicted fencing injury to my thumb joint, which made this activity
high on the list of unwise ideas.
It all began when I was 5
It all began when I was 5, happily enrolled in a Spanish-immersion kindergarten
class in central California. I fearlessly asked my teacher how to say “no” in
Spanish, French, and Italian. While my questions were spoken in English, I was
fascinated that her translations of the same word should be so similar for each
Finding linguistic differences and similarities has inspired me to discover many
languages, each one interesting and unique. I struggled with French for years
before taking Latin and Greek in college. Those reset the standard for what
“difficult” meant. =) The circumstances surrounding my education in Attic Greek
required that I teach myself how to learn independently, which has become an
invaluable mindset now.
More advanced language learners than I would ask me when I was planning to
go to another country to master one of my second languages. I would scoff and
point to the ridiculous impossibility of cost, time, and inconvenience. That was
until the spring of my final year, when a gracious, organized family effort, and my
own willingness to take the next step in language learning put me on a plane to
France after graduation.
I was to become a student of a program for foreigners learning French, in France. I had never been to another country. Ever. I had never lived so far from home. I had never experienced what it meant to be a “foreigner.” After enough time passing, I faced the terror that accompanies the death of the self who knows only one way to see the world.
It was a big move.
There was a new school, new students, new teachers, new
roommates, a new language, a new culture, and new food! There was also:
panic, stress, homesickness, illness, homesickness… and adventure!
I went to France to become better acquainted with the language, but breathing
French air and eating French food wasnʼt enough. I had to escape the English
bubble too. That proved to be more important and more difficult than I realized.
There really aren’t that many words you need to know in order to order food, get on the right bus, get groceries, or buy a nifty sweater. To learn more, I needed to
go where English was unwelcome.
I signed up for Judo at the local college. It was attended by French students,
instead of foreign students of French who could all bridge the divide with varying
levels of English. No, this was a class attended by native French speakers. The
instructor, while sympathetic, wasnʼt speaking slowly for my benefit, he has
teaching us all how to not get the stuffing knocked out of us on the mat.
My brain could no longer categorize French as optional, theoretical, or
convenient. It was critical for survival. Not only were the instructions given
exclusively in French, the Judo commands were all in Japanese.
I learned to understand enough French to absorb the gist of the lessons, to
participate fully in the Judo class, and to keep anyone from taking my feet out
from under me. I wonʼt say that I mastered the art of Judo, but that was never my
I had put myself in a situation that challenged all my assumptions, pushed me out
of my comfort zone, away from my computer, out into the world. Judo served as
a great workout in a cold winter climate. It also happened to be the perfect place
to safely increase the urgency and relevance of learning THIS language, NOW. I
was making friends with those who would kindly suffer through my efforts to
remember, learn, and retain a more complex vocabulary.
I was there to learn French.
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