Being born an English speaker sometimes seems more a curse than a blessing. Especially when you become an expat and realise people of every other nationality seem to be able to speak five languages by the time they’re out of nappies – while at 32 you still aren’t quite sure about the difference between “your” and “you’re” in your own one.
I was terrible at French at school. By the time I was 16, and about to take the last exam I ever faced in the subject, I had a vocabulary that consisted of: asking for the toilet, ordering a beer, – and every swear word in the dictionary. Luckily for me, I earnt a B in my GCSE.
With that I waved goodbye to what I thought would be the last time I would ever use the language. But that was until my partner got a job in France. Mince!
It took about a year before I got to the point where I was able to perform my shows in French as well as in English – and, more importantly, to the point where waiters wouldn’t sigh and resort to English whenever I tried to order a ‘thé vert à la menthe’. Though I must admit, I still can’t pronounce ‘infusion verveine’ to save my life.
The problem comes when French catches me by surprise. A random conversation in the street. When the gardienne of my apartment tries to tell me I’ve had a parcel waiting for me for weeks. The greatest challenge of all though, comes in my shows when I meet that nemesis of the street performer – the heckler.
Heckling is the greatest fear of anyone starting busking for a living. But, after performing for fourteen years, I thought I had faced the worst the street could throw at me. Until I found myself facing a heckler in a foreign language. To be specific, a man dressed in a leather jacket and a pair of old boxer shorts screaming at me in French.
After a few minutes of failing to sooth him with my passably basic French, I am in danger of losing my entire crowd – and thus my earnings for the show. Then I realise I actually have an advantage over him. It has been an effort to learn his language, but this man clearly had the same level of English as my 16 year old self.
So I could safely tell my crowd in English “Please, I know it’s hard, but if you ignore him, he will leave” and carried on as if he wasn’t there. Obviously my words would have made an English speaking heckler stand his ground, but the man did indeed get bored and quickly leave.
Thankfully for most expatriates, having to deal with a semi-naked man like that is not part of the job description. But it goes to show that those of us who do make the effort to learn another language, can’t help but have the edge over those who don’t. Très bien!