Recently, I read this blog post on FluentIn3Months.com. I really related to this post with my experience here in Cameroon, learning my 4th language. The author made a very good point about how people can be living in a place for months or even years, and still do not speak the local language:
Stop speaking English!! This may seem like a pointless statement to make when you live in the country already, but I have seen the same pattern hundreds of times and I am seeing it once again here in Prague. Expats hang out with other English speaking expats and complain about how hard the local language is, or talk about life in general in English. They chat to their boyfriend/girlfriend/friends in English. All of the local friends they have also talk to them in English. They only actually use the local language when they have to; English is actually the language they socialise and relax in most of the time.
I’ve been in Cameroon for a year now, and my French, while good, is nowhere I would like it to be. I compare it with after my first year in the US and the difference is enormous. Granted I was only 12, and going to school makes a big difference. No one wants to be the outcast that can’t speak the language, especially if you went to a suburbia school where the population is 95% white. Besides the fact I had a more solid base in English, I was also truly immersed. The only person I knew that spoke Chinese was my aunt, and she would often speak to me in English. The rest of the family members were anglophone only. TV was in English. Computer was English. My English became really good really fast not by choice, but by forced immersion. Here in Cameroon, I was fortunate to have some French friends in my village during the first few months. That opened the network to a whole bunch of other French volunteers/interns in the country. I spent very little of the first year hanging out with Americans. Mostly because I found socializing with the French gave me the western outlet I needed, but still a very interesting culture exchange and I was somewhat immersed withh the French accent.
I was, and still am terrified to leave Cameroon with a Cameroonian French accent. With the effort I’ve put forth to learning the language, I intend to use it in the future. I am in no way demeaning Cameroonian accents; if you are Cameroonian, naturally, it’s perfectly okay. But imagine, a French person meets an Asian-American speaking Cameroonian French? They will look at me as though I came from Mars. My vacation in May, however, proved that my accent isn’t quite so bad, yet.
Other than hanging out with the French, I attempt to immerse myself with lots of French movies, French music, French books and listening to RFI. Other American volunteers don’t understand why I do this and/or find this very exhausting. Yet even with all my efforts, I still speak a lot of English, and come in contact with more English that I would like. Imagine if I wasn’t putting forth effort at all, how would my French ever improve?
Some French volunteers I met have known other Peace Corps volunteers and apparently we have a reputation for speaking really terrible French. I am trying to change that. And really, I am just trying to leave Cameroon with fluent French. That is all.