Learning French in Switzerland
Excerpt from On the Move
December 2007 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
When I moved from China to Switzerland at age five, my parents enrolled me in kindergarten because it was the appropriate grade for my age. Before I began school, though, they felt that I needed a French name. They predicted that it would be difficult for Swiss people to pronounce Jia, my Chinese first name, so having a French name would make it easier for my teacher and fellow students to interact with me. They rummaged through children's books until they came upon a teddy bear named Philippe. They liked that name because it translated well into English—Philip. My parents were both English majors as undergraduates in China, so they liked how Philippe could be English-French bilingual. At the time, they actually had no idea just how useful this bilingual name would be a year later when we made an unexpected move to America.
On the first day of school, everyone I saw looked nothing like me, but very much like one another, with pale skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. After coming to America, I realized that white people in this country had greater diversity in their physical appearances than the kids I saw in my kindergarten class, perhaps due to the greater mixing of European blood resulting from centuries of immigration and intermarriage. Americans use the term white to describe people from a wide variety of European ancestries such as Germanic, Scandinavian, or Mediterranean. White people in America do not have one distinct look; they may have fair skin or dark skin, brown eyes or blue eyes, brown, red, or blonde hair, thick jaws or pointy jaws. However, as a five-year-old boy who had never seen a non-Chinese kid before, I didn't know that there were so many different kinds of white people; my classmates all looked like they came from nearly identical local Swiss roots.
I still have my kindergarten class photo in my childhood album. The photo shows my teacher and 20 kindergarteners gathered around a slide in the school playground. Amidst the sea of blonde hair, blue eyes, and grinning fair-skinned faces, there I stood: black hair, brown eyes, with a big frown across my tanned face. I was the only one who did not look like anybody else, and also the only one who was not smiling.
I was beyond confused during my first few weeks of school, mainly due to the language barrier. Everyone spoke French except for me. Switzerland has four national languages—German, French, Italian, and Romansh—and the region where one lives determines one's native language. Half the people in my town of Fribourg spoke French while the other half spoke German, and my school happened to be in the French-speaking part. If I had some clue as to what everyone kept saying to me, then at least I could try to figure out the words that I could not understand and ask for clarifications. But I had absolutely no idea what anybody said, so it was difficult for me to establish a starting point for learning French.
I felt like a monkey at the zoo: All the kids tried to talk to me, but I could only respond with primitive groans and head nods. I don't remember exactly what my classmates said to me during those first few weeks, but I do remember that they asked me many questions since I recognized the inquisitive tones in their voices and the brief pauses that ensued while they looked at me and awaited my reply. Unsurprisingly, the first two words of French that I learned were oui and non, corresponding to yes and no in English, respectively. I started by randomly alternating my answers between oui and non, subconsciously gauging my classmates' reactions to my utterances. I could not understand what they were asking me, but those two words seemed to provide satisfactory answers most of the time. Even if they were actually asking what my name was, where I lived, or where my parents came from, all that I said back to them were oui and non. They probably thought I was pretty dumb.
My teacher, a kind young woman in her mid 20's, understood my situation and made sure to tell the other kids certain things about me, like to call me "Philippe Jia" (a combination of my French and Chinese names) and the fact that I was from "la Chine," the country of China. One of the earliest French phrases that I learned to recognize was my own name, "Philippe Jia," as my classmates said it in the classroom, during recess, and most notably, in the gymnasium during physical education class. I vividly remember playing some sort of ball game in the gymnasium, with the squeaky sounds of sneakers running across the floor and the echoes of foreign voices off of the walls. Maybe that location remained clear in my memory because people tended to yell out names often while playing ball games. I would hear "Philippe Jia" whenever somebody threw a ball towards me or signaled me to throw the ball to them.
I learned through quiet observation, the only method available to me at the time. My speaking was far worse than my listening comprehension, so I was afraid to ask the teacher questions. Fortunately, we spent most of the days making watercolor drawings, crafts projects out of cardboard and glue, running around in the playground, and other non-academic activities (rather than learning math and science like I had done in preschool back in China). I wouldn't have stood a chance if the teacher expected me to read textbooks and do homework problems; my mother barely understood French so she wouldn't have been able to help me, and I only saw my father once a week. However, it was far easier for me to become proficient at physical activities since I could observe and imitate what other kids did. Whenever my teacher gave directions on how to assemble an arts and crafts project, I could not understand exactly what she was saying, so I often glanced over at the kids next to me. I tried to play it cool, blending in as much as possible with my classmates and pretending that I could understand the directions as well as they could. I mimicked what they did while applying my own common sense and ingenuity. It wasn't too difficult to brush off my mistakes since other students made errors as well; I looked just as clumsy as the other slow learners in the classroom.
I remained silent most of the time because I was trying to pay careful attention to what the other kids said and then what actions they subsequently performed, subconsciously making connections in my mind between words and actions. Gradually, I began to recognize patterns in other students' behaviors associated with certain words and phrases, and my brain started to figure out the French language bit by bit. I never remembered waking up one morning and suddenly being able to understand everyone, so it must have been a gradual learning process. Within a month, I could comfortably understand much of what my teacher and classmates said to me. I wasn't able to read or write fluently, and I couldn't speak well either, but at least I could understand French well enough to make it through the school days.