I love language, both written and spoken. I love the history of words and the way language develops. I love writing and I love a good chitter chatter with friends. I am a native English speaker but as an ex pat in living in France I can also speak French to some degree. I arrived here nearly 7 years ago with O' Level French and through lessons, talking, reading, watching TV and various other means I have slowly increased by vocabulary and improved my grammar a bit. Now I can get by OK in a wide variety of subjects and am fairly confident on the phone so long as the other person slows down a bit for me.
The boys arrived here with no French but aged 4 and 5 their brains were at that stage when they would absorb any language they were immersed in. Whilst for the first week or so they were a bit lost at school within a month they were getting by and now they are fluent to the point that French speakers do not realise they are English until I speak and let the side down!
I will never get to that level of fluency - I will always have an English accent and I will never, I doubt, get to the talking the language like a naive born French person. This weekend we had French guests in the gite (my French is good enough to arrange that) and on Saturday night we ended up having an impromptu BBQ with them and our French friends who were here - now that is where my lack of real language skills becomes much more evident. There were more people talking at once so concentrating is harder and once a few wines had been drunk the speed of talking increased and the language became more relaxed. Then more idioms tend to get used.
With idioms I can often understand all the words said but have no idea of the actual meaning. A classic (that I do now know) is "Tomber dans les pommes". It literally means to fall in the apples and refers to when someone faints! Or what about "Avoir un poil dans le main"? It translates as "to have a hair in the hand" and means that some-one is lazy! And what about things are are just known about. People of a certain age may well understand what I mean if I were to say (in a disapproving voice) "Language, Timothy!" but many others would have no idea!* Now add in all the proverbs, expressions, local variants, accents and abbreviations native speakers use and I am lost! Both French and English is littered with these uses of language and I bet if you were to record your spoken language for a whole day you would have used them hundreds of times without even realising. As for what they were speaking about - I know it was about films and I heard mention of horror and Will Smith - over and above that I have no idea!
Language is something we take for granted until we are in a foreign country and our native language isn't spoken. Suddenly with this important facet removed from us we can be extremely helpless. I will therefore keep working on trying to improve my French language skills so the next time our guests are discussing what-ever it was about Will Smith they found so interesting, I will understand.
If anyone loves learning about the history of words, I recently read The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth and highly recommend it. It may not help you speak a foreign language but it will give you an insight into how interconnected many languages are and you might be surprised at the history of some of our words.
Do you speak more than one language? Are you fluent or just good enough to ask for a beer and a glass of wine? Or do you have a language faux pas you would like to share with us?
* "Language, Timothy!" was the catchphrase from the 80's sitcom "Sorry" starring Ronnie Corbett as a downtrodden 40 something son still living at home who mother frequently uttered these words.