This post was contributed by Global Ambassador Frances Garnett, an IRG and theater & dance major studying abroad in Brussels, Belgium.
My name is Frances Garnett, and I’m a third-year student studying abroad in Brussels, Belgium. I was born in Belgium, by chance, and I thought it would be fun to both return to my OG roots and to discover a place that was at the same time completely new to me.
I’ve loved sightseeing in Brussels and other parts of the country, and I love that I have the opportunity to become bilingual in French. At the same time, I’ve struggled lately with getting up the confidence to have in-depth conversations with native speakers. I had an experience the other night, though, that gave me a push I really needed.
I went to a salsa class with one of my new friends, Hala, from my study abroad program, but we ended up arriving late, so we jumped into the more advanced class instead of the beginner one. At first, the teacher taught us steps individually, and I was excited that I could actually follow along. Then, we paired up, and I still felt like I knew what I was doing. And then we had to start turning, and not just in one direction, either – I had to wind around my partner in a way that completely discombobulated me. Once we rotated partners, and I was left temporarily alone, I scooted off the dance floor and ran back to Hala, who was already relaxing by the bar, relieved that I didn’t have to further embarrass myself and inconvenience anyone who was forced to dance with me.
After class as I sat talking to Hala, the dance teacher came by and stood right in front of me, bending down so he could look me right in the eyes.
“Pourquoi tu es parti le cours?” he asked. Why did you leave class?
“Euhhh… le cours était… était plus difficile… plus difficule pour moi…” Because I was so flustered, I forgot in the moment how to say “too hard” and instead said the class was “more hard” for me.
That was all I could get out of my mouth before he asked, “Tu parles anglais?”
Ah, the biggest embarrassment of them all.
“Yes I speak English,” I said sheepishly.
“Never leave a class,” he said. “Even if it’s too hard, because you will never get any better. I’m not going to lie and tell you that it’s not hard, because it is, but you still shouldn’t leave.”
I then realized that salsa dancing, for me, is the perfect metaphor for learning how to connect to people in a new language. At first you learn the footwork—the grammar and vocabulary. Once you find your partner, you have to learn to improvise, either by leading them or following their lead, reading their body language or their language-language. Even if you don’t understand or send an unclear signal, if you commit to trying again, you can learn send and receive signals correctly. And you must learn to look your partner in the eye. Otherwise, how will you ever really make a connection?
I took that unexpected lesson from salsa to heart. The other night, when I was riding a train back from Bruges and the ticket collector came by, he asked if I spoke French. “Oui,” I replied immediately, surprising myself. He then told me I had a problem with my ticket. Not fantastic, but at least I could navigate that conflict confidently in French. That’s a step towards bilingualism that I’m very proud of.
Frances Garnett is a Spring 2020 Global Ambassador.