The other day in Annecy, I was sitting by the lake and watching some ducks. I was also watching three boys wading through the shallow water throwing something at the ducks. At first, I thought it was food. They were throwing stones. Aware that a large stone could severely injure or kill a duck, I looked around for the kids’ parents and hoped they would notice what the kids were doing.
If I had been in an English-speaking country, I wouldn’t have waited, but that’s the thing about learning a foreign language: the nuances make all the difference. Even if my French is word perfect, how do I convey the right amount of sternness in my tone? How do I pick the words that convey the sentiments. In our brains, our mother language thesaurus started growing when we were babies, but my French language thesaurus only began around five years ago. The appropriate words might not be the ones I’m really looking for. And on top of all that, what do I do if the kids yell something back at me that I don’t understand?
As I sat there wondering why it was taking me so long to react, I realised I was scared. Confrontation doesn’t really bother me, but in another language — and with kids who are already being naughty — it made me hesitate. But what’s more important? Me looking like a fool by saying the wrong thing in my second language (and that wouldn’t be the first time), or trying to stop ducks getting maimed or killed? I walked over and told the kids off, wondering why I’d chosen ‘tu‘ (used for kids or those you know well) instead of ‘vous‘ (used for plural, even when kids) to tell them off. I explained in dodgy French what might happen if they hit a duck and told them to stop. They replied in perfect French and I walked away.
Did they stop? No. As I turned back to check, one held a stone ready to throw. He saw me and put his arm back down. Then I heard one of them say: ‘It was him’ in English and I realised they were English kids. Damn! I could have told them off in perfectly good English, with all those well-picked words and correct intonations and so much less effort! A quick look around led me directly to the boys’ mother, who I know, and the kids finally stopped throwing stones.