“It’s like riding a bike.” Such sentiments seem comical to me as I huff and puff over train tracks, around round-abouts and over bumpy bike lanes trying to keep up with Elijah on our way to the store. I haven’t consistently ridden a bike in almost 20 years (goodness, that makes me feel old) and it was so much easier back then. I didn’t need to bother with traffic laws or gears—I just put my helmet on and rode wherever I wanted to go.
And no, I do not have a picture of us with our bikes. I’d rather not commit that to a photo, thank you very much.
But now, things are more complicated. We tote around Annie as cars whiz past us. There are all these unwritten coordinated ways of conducting yourself on the road that I never had to think about before. Getting from point A to point B feels overwhelming as I try to decide to change gears or not, stand to rest or peddle harder. With each ride, it gets a little easier, but still I lament at my own inadequate physical shape and coordination.
Taking this long to recall riding a bike is a lot like learning French and reminds me of adjusting to culture here as well. Everything feels harder—familiar but challenging. Everything takes longer and more effort needs to be put into simple tasks that I used to be able to do quickly and efficiently. Life is slowing down for us as routine things are more complicated to complete with a new language.
Our teacher started our French studies all the way back at the beginning, with phonetics and for this, I am so very grateful! I felt like I was back in 1st grade, sounding out words, guessing at strange letter combinations. Except my 1st grade self was able to peddle effortlessly through learning to be literate. Rules were learned once and felt obvious afterwards. But now, my adult brain strains to remember accurately how new sounds correspond with words that look alike to the English versions that have been seared into my neural pathways. The French alphabet is quite like the one we know backwards and forwards, but all of a sudden, the combinations of letters make totally new sounds I have never made before. Syllable by syllable, huffing and puffing, peddling along, it feels like everything is taxing in this new place.
Going to the grocery store and cooking meals has been an interesting challenge. I find that I am doing mental gymnastics as I work to translate words into the product I am looking for and decide if the price in euros is close enough to what I would pay at home. I’ve already bought pull-ups instead of diapers and have discovered that we came home with scented toilet paper (which we don’t use). Cooking and baking with different ingredients makes the normal routine of providing family meals feel strenuous until I can master a meal plan that works for us on school days.
But there is a thrill of excitement when I recognize a sound, link syllables to their phonetic symbols, know how to pronounce that word, and read it fluently. It’s a small thing—a slow process but a rewarding one. The sense of satisfaction of having emerged victorious from the grocery store with everything crossed off my list as we carry our groceries home is so much greater now. Working hard for something makes the achievement so much sweeter.
I’ve caught myself not practicing what I used to preach and drill into my students’ heads: to have a growth mindset. There have been some growing pains in our first days in a new place. It humbles me to know I have the privilege of a “transition period” where I can focus on a new language where the culture around me still looks familiar. This is not the same experience some of my colleagues have had, as they are adjusting to all things new.
What a blessing it is to start over and be humbled before our God who is working to transform us for His glory—and to spend each day “work[ing] heartily, as for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23). I have confidence that the promise that “He who began a good work in [us] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6) applies to this work of learning a new language as well!