Livin in a multilingual world…

So, the stop before my MRT stop on Tuesday nights is next to a mildly famous Night Market here in Taipei and it’s normal for my train to gain more than few people from that stop as people head to Taipei main station. But, as I sat reading my copy of Midshipman Hornblower tonight on the train and we hit that stop I was broken from my reading by an abnormally large group of people getting onto my car.

“Whoa, must be party night.” I thought myself and went back to my reading as the doors closed and we continued on our way.

But, no sooner had we started to move than I realized that I wasn’t hearing Chinese being spoken around me, but French! Looking up in surprise, I peered through the standing crowd looking for the usual foreigners, only to find there weren’t any, the French was coming from the Chinese-looking people around me.

I couldn’t help it, I smiled, and then quietly laughed a bit as I returned to my book, deciding that probably I was surrounded by a bunch of University students practicing their French on their way home. But, no sooner had I looked down than I became aware of a shadow over me, and looked up to find myself face to face with a twentysomething Chinese girl leaning in to look down at the book I was reading to check the language.

“Anglais,” I told her, smiling. Oddly enough, Hornblower is actually filled with French, so it’s a language that I have been exposed to recently, just not hearing or speaking it.

“Where are you from?” She asked me in French, but I knew what she said without thinking.

“Je suis Canadian,” I replied, remembering from High School to pronounce the “d” as a “j”.

Of course, this got me a long stream of French in response that poor Rob had no hope of understanding. So much for being continental!

“Je n’parle pas francais.” I said apologetically, using my last bit of French.

“But, you’re speaking it now!” They answered me in French.

“I only speak a little bit!” I said, dropping to English.

“Oh,” said the girl, also switching to English. “Are you from Quebec?”

“No, Ontario.”

That got me puzzled looks.

“Next to Quebec,” I added to still puzzled looks. (Maybe the maps in France just show Canada as being 90% Quebec or something…)

To make a long story short, they asked me if I was a traveller, and I told them I’m a resident, and then asked them where they came from. It turns out I was quite wrong, I was in the middle of a group of international students from France! (And Tunesia.) The girl I was speaking to turned out to be from Paris, and it seems they were foreign born Chinese here to learn their ancestral tongue.

Unfortunately the next stop was my own, so I had to wish them goodbye and good luck.

Then, after I got home I wandered down the hall to the laundry room to check if I could do my laundry, and as I started to return I suddenly heard the sound of spoken English echoing down the corridor. Considering there are 4 Taiwanese on my floor and none of them has really shown any English ability, I was quite surprised. Following the sound I found myself in front of the door of a young woman I suspected might be a flight attendant.

But, this again was a bit of a shock. You see when people memorize vocabulary, they use a pattern where they say the foreign word first, and then say the word in their own language. As an ESL teacher and language student, I know this pattern very well. Well, the shock came from the fact that she was reciting the foreign word first, and then following it with nearly unaccented English! On top of that, the foreign words were Japanese, not Mandarin! She was memorizing Japanese and translating it to English as her known language!

Stop the culture shock train, I want to get off!

Rob