Want to Really Travel? Put away the backpack and learn a language.

Last night I was put to shame by Bradley Cooper.

Stumbling through the various suggestions of late night YouTube – a process incidentally which can tell you a whole lot about yourself – I came upon a video of Cooper being interviewed on French television about his directorial debut A Star is Born.

I’ve linked the video here and if you choose to watch it you’ll witness that only a couple of minutes in (1:20 to be exact) Cooper declares that he is going to remove his ear piece, presumably with the voice of a translator or assistant and fly solo through the conversational format of the show.

You can almost hear the collective intake of breath not only from the French audience but the ghost of any other English speaker who has happened to see the same fearless act of a man going it alone.

Though I have no particular interest in A Star is Born or Bradley Cooper, while watching him negotiate his way through the questions I couldn’t help but reflect on my own attempts at the same language.

Growing up in Ireland I took French in school, after English and Irish, and I was unashamedly poor at it. Island mentality does nothing to help. You grow up thinking you simply will never have to use this; possessing a third language, and one of the continent, is a luxury, something likely to be superfluous to requirements.

It wasn’t until I emigrated and found myself some years later in French-speaking Switzerland that I understood the way many anglophone nations view the necessity of other languages is neglectful at best and crippling at worst.

In my case it would have been the latter had the person I most wished to speak to not been able to converse with me in English.

That person happened to be my now boyfriend.

Time has moved on from that point and while there he could save our interactions with his own fearlessness in English, he could not and cannot do it on behalf of either myself or other French speakers in similar conversational settings. Nor should he have to.

IMG_2587
A gift from my French family that might be more than simply an invitation to learn the words.

Suddenly in his world and without a language, I felt more lost than any physical location could ever leave me. The very sensation is one of the reasons I feel that travel is often over-rated for being the sole undertaking capable of expanding your horizons, as so many people praise it for being.

If you really want to challenge yourself, stay put and get by in the day-to-day language of the place you otherwise might jet out of in a couple of weeks. It is not the seeing of somewhere that opens the mind, perhaps not even the experiencing of it. For me the act of engaging with the otherness through language will ultimately define how far I have really travelled.

Nothing disenfranchises you like not being able to speak. You are simply not yourself. I wonder if you can ever be yourself anyway in another language, or if the language you were brought up in is so much a part of your identity that it is impossible to exist fully without it.

I have often said to my boyfriend that if I don’t know him in French, do I really know him at all (a worrying concept).

When Cooper says he is going to try the interview without assistance I felt a surge of shame for all the times I have stayed silent – happy to be spoken for – out of embarrassment that my limits will leave me misunderstood. Better misunderstood than non-existent.

At the conclusion of the interview, Cooper is thanked for his time and for speaking French. Where once I might not have paid much attention to this acknowledgement, last night it struck me that this thank you was as much a thank you for wanting to talk to us as it was a thank you for making an attempt in a language not your own.

I will sweep aside my own embarrassment to meet my own French family at the point where they too can feel that my attempts symbolise not just the act of speaking but of truly wanting to engage with them. What they will hear will not be the mistakes but the desire to be very much present in the room with them.

It is no wonder the audience gave Cooper such a round of applause at the end of his interview. I did too, from my little room in the middle of the island of Ireland.

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