Me and another exchange student at the Arc de Triomphe, Paris, 2010
I’ve always possessed polished and persuasive communication skills. I love reading and public speaking, have a well-rounded vocabulary and can hold my ground in intellectual conversation. In interviews and presentations, I easily talk my way into opportunities.
That’s how I talked myself into Rotary Youth Exchange. My teacher suggested attending an “information evening”, which ended up being a surprise interview. The next thing I know, I’m being offered a scholarship to travel overseas for a year.
Now the caveat. That articulation, vocabulary and confidence speaking- that’s all with the English language only. My French is…well… merde.
With Rotary Youth Exchange you don’t get to choose your host country, or which language you will live in 24/7.
So that’s how in 2010, I found myself sitting in Brussels, Belgium. Thinking, “What on earth have I got myself in to?”. I spoke only two words of French, merci and oui.
My host family greeted me in French at the airport, asked how I was. I had no clue what was going on, just gave a tentative “oui?”. Oui became my catchphrase, it means "yes", but with some intonation you can make it sound like a question. The perfect non-committal answer to anything. It became my version of “umm”. My host family eventually picked up “Do you say oui because you agree, or because you are confused?”. Ahhh bugger… caught out.
I attended high school in French, and regular night time language courses. Despite throwing myself in the deep end, unfortunately French didn’t come as naturally to me as it did others. My accent is good because I learned by hearing. My grammar and writing are shocking. Why certain nouns are feminine or masculine eludes me. Post-stick notes remained around the house for months. Every morning I woke up- looked out my window, read its post-stick proclaiming “la fenêtre” and gazed upon a snow-covered wonderland.
Belgium has three official languages, French, German and Flemish. Brussels is the mixing pot of all three. My first host family swapped from German to French at home, because I was attending French school. Signs, train announcements - are repeated thrice in each language. Streets and landmarks go by two different names, one each in Flemish and French. Also throw English into the mix, as European Union headquarters makes English the unofficial fourth language of Brussels.
Train station signage in Brussels: Count up to 4 languages
Perhaps it is because most Belgians are accustomed to speaking a minimum of three languages. But it didn’t take long before I felt ostracised for my feeble French skills - particularly by high school peers. My older host brother avoided me and seemed to look down on me. Peers spoke so fast that all their words seemed to blend into one, in loud bars you couldn’t distinguish anything. I became uncharacteristically shy, and lost all my confidence and sense of self. I couldn’t communicate my true personality to others either.
Exchange is the best thing I’ve done in my life, but it wasn’t all Parisian trips, amazing food, incredible cultural experiences. Being alone in a country where you don't speak the language is incredibly isolating. I experienced a major depressive episode. The culture shock, language barrier and loneliness are all very hard to overcome.
Not everyone was unsupportive though. Younger kids have endless patience and creativity. My little host brother taught me the word for aeroplane without resorting to English. He said “cheep cheep vrooom” - miming a motorised bird and plane take-off. I also had a lovely literature teacher who spent her lunchtimes teaching the exchange students French.
Other exchange students and expats become your lifeline. They know what you are going through, there’s a sense of community that is otherwise missing. My wellbeing always depended on if I had a supportive host family and friends or not. I had three host families during my year - one German, one Flemish and one French speaking. It was like three completely different lives - some were supportive, others not.
The following year, my first older host brother went on exchange. He visited me in Sydney and apologised for treating me poorly. He hadn’t realised how tough it was being alone on the other side of the world.
Language has the power to welcome, but also isolate people. It can be the difference between positive and poor mental health. It builds bridges and communities, but language differences can also cause rifts, build barriers and tear communities apart.
If you encounter someone who doesn’t speak your language well (or who speaks it a little differently), be patient and kind, speak a little slower. Consider what they have gone through to be here - where they have come from. You may not be seeing who they really are. Consider that your cultural and language lenses may cause you to overlook some potentially wonderful friends.
This has particular pertinence to supporting refugees, migrants and international students. Your friendship, being included in a community- could mean the world to them.
Then, if you're lucky like me - those cross-cultural friendships can lead towards other amazing cultural and travel experiences in years to come.