May 17 / Jessica Jacob, Spanish and English Instructor

French, Wonderfully Relevant In Surprising Ways and Places!

As you lovers of languages already know, language holds enormous potential for building bridges and opening a door to spontaneous interactions, in the most gratifying way. As colleagues and mutual language lovers, I thought you might appreciate these humble interactions that I encountered recently.
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Living in Southeast Asia for the last nine months and traveling between Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, I have been acquiring enough bits of the national languages, Thai and Vietnamese, to engage with the local communities (ordering food, knowing my numbers for pricing, basic introductions, and the popular "I speak very little"). While these are all important to communicate basic essential needs while also demonstrating effort and respect to the countries I am inhabiting, we (locals and I) nonetheless still happen upon moments of frustration in our desire to share with and learn much more from one another than we are capable of doing, and so our exchange often remains at a very surface level -- deep in its significance, but shallow in its content.
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Two such instances occurred recently. On our way to the beach, my husband and I sat on a bench across the street from our condo waiting for the local public bus to arrive known as the Blue Songtheaw. While waiting, an older gentleman sat near us and the three of us tried to engage in a dialogue as best we could. I managed to learn that he was 81 years old and lived next door. Our conversation was a struggle, yet he continued to converse with us despite the look of confusion on our faces. When the extent of our comprehension was finally established, the three of us were left waiting quietly on the busy street -- me feeling a bit unsatisfied with my limited understanding. About ten minutes later, the bus finally arrived, and to my surprise, the older gentleman did not climb in. We soon realized that he was in fact not waiting for the bus, rather, he was merely joining us on our wait for the simple purpose of seeing us off with a smile and a wave. 😀
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Upon arriving at the beach, my husband and I sat near an older woman, the three of us trying to share the little shade provided by the few palm trees that offered some solace from the sun. As the sun started to shift, the woman became more and more exposed to its rays, and so my husband offered to help her move her mat so as to follow the shadow of the palm tree making its way closer to us. She was grateful and smiled and I used my handy "sa-bay-dee-mai-ka" line (how are you?) that I had been practicing. We managed to carry on a very short conversation in which I was able to exhaust all of my key Thai phrases, at which point I concluded with my Thai version of, "I speak very little Thai". Then, I asked her if she spoke English and she responded with "very little English" and so we both thought we had reached the end of our conversation, when all of a sudden, she asked if I spoke French! I lit up and responded with an enthusiastic "Oui"! And so, both of us, delighted to be able to speak in our third non-native language, were able to continue our conversation and reach further depths of engagement, in French.
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I soon came to learn that this Thai woman, native to the island of Phuket, had been living in Switzerland and was on vacation visiting her family here in Patong beach. It turns out that she had not been back for a while and she was sharing how expensive things have gotten on the island, especially for transportation. I shared that we use the public transportation, Songtheaws, and they have been an easy and affordable way to get around. After chatting for a bit longer, we soon parted ways and continued on our day. Well, a couple hours later, as we made our way back towards our condo, guess who climbed onto the same Songtheaw we were riding to head back inland? The woman on the beach. Whether it was to experience a human connection through the sharing of the French language, or to merely offer her an alternative option for cheaper transportation, knowing French, in this case, really paid off in a subtle yet poignant way.

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About the Author: Jessica Jacob

Originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, Jessica speaks Spanish as her first language. As her family immigrated to the United States when she was five years old, she acquired English through an ESL program, developing a fascination for languages and cultures from a young age. This appeal led her to pursue French as a third language. Upon receiving her B.A. in Spanish Language, Literature and Culture, with a minor in French in 2008, Jessica enrolled in a Study-Abroad program in Angers, France, that transformed her life and inspired a love for travel and human connection. 

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