I am convinced that the only way to truly become fluent in a language, for you to speak it (perhaps not always flawlessly) without hesitation, is to put yourself in a situation where you have to use it as opposed to merely studying when you feel like it. Nothing will force you to use a language quite like being stranded at a French petrol station in the middle of nowhere, knowing your only way out is to convince someone to give you a lift…
It’s no secret that at Cambridge, in MML the emphasis is placed on having a sound grasp of the written languages you are studying, knowing the ins and outs of its obscure grammatical features. (L’imparfait du Subjonctif in French anyone?) For our lecturers, this is more important than a solid grasp of colloquial usage. If your aim is to read medieval literature and philosophy, great! But not so great if you aim to actually speak the language fluently. Reading fluency and oral fluency are two separate phenomena. This is perhaps the biggest complaint I’ve heard (and made) to my peers studying MML at Cambridge; some have even said that their oral French/Spanish has gotten worse since coming here. But hey, that’s what the year abroad is for right?
I’m not bashing the fact that Cambridge is often more concerned with literary forms of language than the colloquial forms; I’ve just come to accept that gaining colloquial fluency has to be something extra-curricular. On a life changing two week trip hitch-hiking though France and Spain to reach Morocco, I came to appreciate what a gift speaking a second or third language fluently truly is.
In April 2012 myself and Leah Knight, both of us Language Freshers at Girton (me French and Arabic, her French and Spanish) and both eager to actually get some speaking practice in before our dreaded oral exams, decided to embark on the trip of a lifetime. We signed ourselves up for Link Community Development’s Charity Hitch-hike, and chose Morocco as our destination. The months flew by and before we knew it we’d raised our money, both through legitimate fund-raising and badgering friends and family, and were on a ferry bound for Le Harvre. Let the adventure begin!
Okay so we didn’t get off to the best start. Le Harvre was a wet and miserable place when we were there and we had to walk half a mile outside the city centre in the drizzling grey mist that enveloped the town in order to even stand a chance of getting a lift. To add insult to injury there were two other groups participating in the same event, both headed for Morocco. We had chatted with them on the ferry, and felt a quiet sense of smugness upon finding out that we were the only group that actually spoke the languages of the countries we would be hitching through. Upon arrival in Marrakesh we met up with one of the groups again, and their stories of how great it would have been to understand what was going on half the time confirmed to us what an ace we had up our sleeves being linguists.
However, when you’re standing outside a petrol station beside a busy road trying to thumb a ride, it doesn’t matter how good your French is, and the other two groups were picked up first. Demoralised and soaked, after a couple of hours we had begun to give up hope when a slightly bemused commuter stopped and offered to take us a few miles down the road. We came to realise that lifts like this weren’t always the best idea as we ended up stranded in an even worse location with even less passing traffic. But hey, we got our first lift and more importantly we had our first conversation in French. (maybe we could do this after all?)
As the day wore on we got better and better at hitching rides, and after having to reject an offer to stay the night in Nantes (too far off course to the west) we had somehow managed to make it all the way to the outskirts of Le Mans by mid-afternoon. This is where disaster struck. The next town on our planned route south from Le Mans was Tours (and putting Morocco on your sign probably wouldn’t get you very far) so upon arrival at Mans we got the biro out (note to self – bring permanent markers next time!) and scribbled ‘Tours’ on a shabby, damp piece of A4 Paper as legibly as we could manage.
Unfortunately for us, the Romanian lorry driver who would pick us up didn’t have the best knowledge of French Geography and thought we were lost tour guides! He was a lot of fun, blaring Romanian rap music and honking his horn whilst driving way too fast and showing us photos of his family, but unfortunately he was headed towards Paris, not south via Tours and before we had time to tell him and get out he’d turned on to the A11 towards Paris. He was such a nice guy, but unfortunately between his rudimentary English and our non-existent Romanian I don’t think we even managed to convey that we didn’t want to go to Paris but were heading south to Morocco; I think he just thought I liked drawing routes on maps. We managed to convince him to pull over at the next service station (which, thank god, had a bridge to the other side of the motorway for us to double back). He was sad to see us go – “in the you go? Ok 🙁 In the bye” – but going to Paris was sadly not an option.
So there we were, off course and disoriented, sitting in the French version of Welcome Break, sipping coffee and despairing about what to do next. Up until now, all the interaction had come to us. If someone stops to pick up a hitch-hiker, it’s usually out of curiosity or for company. They will more often than not be friendly and willing to talk to you. However, now it was a different kettle of fish. We were stranded and the only way to get out was to actually convince a French person to let two slightly soggy (although not yet smelly – it was only day one) English teenagers in the back of their car.
At first we were both reluctant to approach people, but we came to realise it was getting too late to be picky or shy and we plucked up the courage to talk to literally everyone who pulled up to refill their tank. Eventually, Leah managed to convince a reluctant woman from Le Mans to take us to the outskirts of her town. Persuading someone to give you a lift when you are stranded will certainly flex your language muscles a lot more than anything in French Grammar In Context, Third Edition ever could. She eventually warmed to us, after we assured her that her husband would not find out that she’d picked up autostoppeurs as she was adamant that he’d kill her if he found out!
We camped by the side of the road that night (a tent is definitely a must for any hitch-hiker) and the next morning, after brushing off the light dusting of snow that had settled overnight (this was the year that spring got lost somewhere on the way, remember?) we parked ourselves by the side of the road, thumbs outstretched, smiling eagerly, patiently and hopefully waiting. Blanche DuBois was proved right, time and time again, you can always depend on the kindness of strangers.
Over the course of our 1800 mile adventure we were picked up by some amazing and diverse people, who we simply never would have interacted with otherwise. Single men, families, single women, ex-hitch-hikers and ex-gendarmes; teachers, builders and civil servants; we met them all, a complete cross-section of both French and Spanish society. We listened to their amazing stories, which I simply can’t do justice too in a short article like this one, all of which were in their native languages. That beats a 9am Use of class hands down! But after a while the fact that we were speaking another language almost became secondary; the important thing was that we were interacting with these people, sharing our stories with them and listening to theirs. For me, this is fluency. Fluency is not being able to conjugate obscure grammatical tenses that are barely in use today or being able to read centuries old literature. Fluency is being able to express yourself meaningfully and convey emotion – the basic goal of language – the basic goal of being a human being!
The trip has solidified my philosophy on language. Language is about communication, about culture, and both these things are about meaningful interactions and shared experiences with other people. For me, languages are not about grammar and phonology, interesting though these areas may be to many. For me, being multilingual is such an amazing skill because of the interactions it enables you to have with others who have completely different life experiences and backgrounds. Languages are a means to an end. Taking part in the Hitch was one of the most rewarding and interesting things I have ever done, both in terms of my language ability and my own personal development. So what’s stopping you from going on the adventure of a lifetime?
Link Community Development is an amazing charity who does some great work in Sub Saharan Africa. This incredible event began back in 1992 as the Cambridge-Casablanca challenge, but, believe it or not, myself and Leah were the only group from Cambridge to participate in 2012. And she only heard about the Hitch from her sister at the ‘Other Place’, where it is actually a popular event, akin to Jailbreak (although Hitch-hiking is arguably more meaningful, rewarding and difficult than using your connections to get free plane tickets to Hawaii or Australia). This year me and Leah are determined to get the Hitch up and running again in Cambridge.
If this hasn’t convinced you, here are some photos of what awaits you in Morocco! (Where, let’s not forget, they also speak French… hint hint, nudge nudge)
If Morocco isn’t your cup of mint tea, or perhaps if you’re studying German/Italian then maybe Croatia is the destination for you? The Hitch is of course open to any University student with a sense of adventure who can find a partner, and navigating the language barrier is certainly very fun at times (see the bit about Romanian lorry drivers), so if you don’t speak the language don’t let this put you off! I just want to stress what an amazing and rewarding opportunity this is for us linguists to actually use our language skills!
Sign up today! You won’t regret it!
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