I spent two weeks at home with my family over the holidays, eating great food, seeing close friends, and speaking an amazing amount of English. It was so relaxing that I had no idea how the transition back to Switzerland would be. But I was in for some surprises.

The first surprise was the words. For the first week, French words on signs began to pop out at me. The words weren’t even anything special except for the fact that I knew what they meant. There was a secret power in the knowing, as if I could place the word in my pocket to use later when I needed it. It was almost startling how vivid they became, little pieces of life strewn around the city that were ripe for the taking. I plundered the words, locked them away safe in my mind so that I could know. Not figure out, but know instinctively what they wanted to say.

It’s this instinct that allows me to know what words mean without translating them. I am surprised at how the words to the songs we sing in church touch my heart differently than they did even one month ago. They seem closer, more real. The words mean more now and are permeating every aspect of my life, even my dreams.

Of course, it helps that the words are really all around me. When I am in an English speaking country, it is easy to choose not to speak French. But here, I have no choice. There are people with whom I could not otherwise communicate unless I wrap my tongue around these strange syllables and take out the words I have locked away. And I am already learning again, every day.

Sometimes I still feel like I am speaking in code. It seems cryptic and difficult, yet this code is the primary means with which a people think, discuss and dream. And slowly, I am cracking it, using this code to become a little more like them, discerning more with every conversation. There are times when it is a struggle, and then other times where I am walking down the street and I catch myself thinking in French. Cryptic or comforting, foreign or familiar, it’s becoming a part of me in a way that makes me think that no matter what happens, I will never be the same.


3 thoughts on “Plunder

  1. I can completely relate to how you felt after returning to Switzerland. I moved to the US from Colombia in ’96 (and didn’t go back until last summer!), and I knew all the grammar and vocabulary, yet all those words seemed foreign to me. At one point, I stopped translating every single word in my head–they just started to make sense, and most importantly, I started feeling the words. The words started to move me. English did not become my second language (or new language, as they call it nowadays), it became my other Spanish. ¿Sí sabes lo que quiero decir?

    • It’s always exciting to reach the phase where we stop translating and just understand. I like how you described English as being your other Spanish. How long did it take for you to reach that stage?

  2. Kate, somehow I wound up in this post this morning, and was so happy to read it. (I’d missed it back when you wrote it.) What joy, when all the study and frustration and hard work comes together in such natural and delightful understanding! I expect that sense is growing still, day by day by day!

    Shall we use some English words with each other one of these days? 🙂

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