Coming up on a year of taking French lessons using Duolingo, and I recognize I’ve got a long, long way to go. Nothing impresses that on a person like listening to someone sing softly and rapidly in French, as Lous and the Yakuza did in a remarkable Tiny Desk Concert on NPR. It really wasn’t until Marie-Pierra Kakoma started speaking in French that I picked up on some of what she was saying. The rest of the time I was hopelessly grasping for familiar words while enjoying the cool vibe of the music. Sometimes you just need to concede defeat and make the most of the situation.
To be fair, a second or third language is much easier to understand in a conversation than it is in rapid-fire lyrics in a pop song. Walking around in Montreal most people are just happy that you’re trying to meet them halfway with their own language and help bridge the conversation. Body language and intonation not only help bridge the language barrier, they often serve as the primary way of communicating. People are people anywhere you go. Most want to help others.
For all my talk of learning French, I know it would take immersion to really make it sink in. At the moment I’m at the dog paddle level of swimming in the French Olympic pool. And that’s okay for now (after all I’m locked away in a pandemic), but at some point I’ll face another test and it ought to push me to get better.
Take that hopelessly lost feeling of listening to Marie-Pierra Kakoma singing and flip it around. At one point she spoke English, struggled with it, and returned to her native French. That was the moment when two people speaking different languages would have bridged those gaps for each other. But it was just her and a microphone with her band silent behind her. That struggle is one we all feel with a foreign (to us) language. The encounter with the unfamiliar. The unknown.
Think of the great explorers of history, Giovanni da Verrazzano, Jacques Cartier, Henry Hudson, Samuel de Champlain. The best of them encountered the unfamiliar all the time. Unknown lands, hidden shoals, native people encountering strangers for perhaps the first time, and always, language barriers. Being able to get that encounter with the unfamiliar right the first time was often the difference between life and death for them. Who are we to struggle with a few words and throw our hands up in frustration?
Encountering the unknown informs. We learn what we don’t know and, if we let it, teaches us to be better. Do you throw your hands up and walk away or press on and figure it out? That teaching moment is casually informative for me, but might be urgent for an immigrant lost in a new city with a sick child. Encounters with the unknown offer a lesson in empathy for those paying attention. Figuring out where the restroom is might just be the most urgent thing we ever struggle with. For some it means a whole lot more to figure things out. Read the bio for Marie-Pierra Kakoma and you see that she was a refugee herself. She gets a pass with her struggles speaking English to an unseen audience.
I may never master French, but I’m very slowly picking it up. Should the pandemic end and travel restrictions lift, perhaps a trip to Montreal or Paris is in order to celebrate. We’ll all be ready to encounter something unfamiliar by then. In the meantime, should I encounter someone struggling to be understood in my own language, maybe a bit of empathy and generosity would help in the moment.