Learning a language while cruising can be a fun way to enhance your interactions with the locals (published January 2014)
Listen and then repeat: “Bonjour.” “Bon Jour.” — Beep –.
I am hard at work studying French using Rosetta Stone on my laptop with headphones, while tucked in at the nav station. Sinbad is anchored in Marigot Bay, St. Martin for the third time in two years. Soon we’ll head south to Guadeloupe and Martinique, and in a year or two maybe into the Pacific to French Polynesia.
We enjoy talking to the local people, and learning French will make our visits more interesting and fun. Each day I listen, repeat and take quizzes for an hour or so, and have made slow but steady progress. I’m ready to unleash my French skills onto the unsuspecting populace of Marigot.
Randy takes a different approach. He stands politely, smiling charmingly at the ladies working the deli section of the U.S. Market. Saying “Bon Jour,” he points and gestures to get tastes and servings of the mouthwatering cheeses, pâtés and sausages that he loves. The ladies cheerfully teach him the names of the delicacies he buys and they always smile and wave a friendly goodbye when he leaves. I’m sure he could get a date if he tried.
While I browse the straw market in Marigot, Randy enjoys a glass of wine at the Brasserie de la Gare in Marina Royale on the lagoon. The cheerful proprietress has befriended him and is teaching him French, one word at a time. It goes something like this (I write it phonetically so that you can learn French too!):
Randy: Mare-see Bo-kew!
She: Oh, you say like this…mare-see bo- coo. Thank you very much. You see, mare-see bo-kew means “nice butt!”
Randy (delighted): Mare-see. Thanks!
She: De rien. (You’re welcome.)
Randy (tries repeating the new word): Derièrre. (“Behind.”)
She: Ehhh, oui…. (Ah, well…)
Randy: Mare-see bo-coo and bo-kew!
She: bursts into laughter
I practice on the ladies who work at the bakeries where I buy our baguettes, fresh fruit tarts and other tasty bites. They demand a high standard of correctness in the use of the French language and they correct me in a friendly way nearly every day. I carefully rehearse in my mind, constructing my sentences and refining my pronunciation. I order in French, and each time they respond in English. It’s just as well because I have not mastered counting euros in French. For instance, the way to say “seventy” is literally “sixty and ten”. I think they’ve guessed that I’m not just off the plane from Paris.
It’s easier to learn the language when you are immersed in it. When I walk into the post office to buy stamps for my postcards, I can say, “I would like to buy six … for postcards to the United States,” but I don’t know the word for “stamps.” As I stand in line, my eyes rove around the post office lobby and I’m able to figure out the word I need by studying the displays of the new stamps, stamp posters, etc. The transaction is successfully completed with no quizzical looks from the clerk.
Later, we’re standing outside a patisserie in Gustavia, St. Barths, having just been schooled by the pastry lady during my order of a peach “tartine.” We’re chatting with a gentleman outside who was born here and returned here after a long career working in the States. I laugh about trying to communicate with the pastry ladies in French. Helpfully, he informs me that almost everyone here speaks English. I smile and tell him that I’m trying to learn French and need to practice on his countrymen. He is surprised and pleased.
With my ancient high school German (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) and rusty Tarzan Spanish (“Me Diane, me want taco”), my efforts to speak with people in their own language are almost always welcomed with humor and encouragement. The hardest part is getting over the shyness and just going for it. Americans are generally not celebrated for our multilingual abilities and I’d like to put a little dent in that stereotype.
I’ve enjoyed making slow but gradual progress in speaking and understanding French. We are currently in Antigua, a land of Anglophones, but I’m continuing my studies in preparation for the assault on Martinique.