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Communication Breakdown in La Réunion

Cora struggles with the language barrier in her first weeks abroad.

I arrived three days ago to this small island surrounded by the Indian Ocean, La Réunion. I am currently staying with Sylvie, one of the teachers from the school I will be teaching at, and her husband. They stay in a flat in a small town called Saint-André. Although this is technically within the region of Africa, don’t let stereotypes misguide you. The flat has high-speed Internet, a wide-screen TV and a pool.

Although the conditions seem fairly luxurious, my first few days haven’t exactly been a breeze. The biggest hurdle I am experiencing is the language barrier. I studied some French in school, but as soon as I sat down at a dinner table to have conversation with the family, I felt like I knew absolutely nothing.

On my second night another family came over for dinner. We had the traditional French meal, raclatte. The night consisted of cheese, meats, champagne, red wine and (slightly more Réunion style) lychee rum. I am beginning to realize how much time is spent in La Réunion enjoying food, enjoying conversation while eating food and enjoying conversation about food.

And of course, along with the copious amounts of cheese and alcohol, comes a copious amount of talking—our conversation lasted from 7:30pm to midnight to be exact. And listening to a foreign language for that amount of time in a fast paced conversation is a just a tad exhausting.

During a typical dinner conversation I can usually understand the topic and what is being said, however responding is a whole different challenge. If you’ve ever been immersed in another language, you’ll understand the frustration of having so many things to say, but not being able to communicate them. When given a generous pause to contribute my thoughts, words would zoom through my head as I tried to configure a sentence. What tense am I using and does it match the subject and which order do I say it in? But after all this intense deliberation of French grammar, what actually comes out of my mouth is a fractured string of syllables that loosely resembles the idea I want to get across.

Even though people are very friendly and generally understand the struggle of speaking in a foreign language, after two days I started to get incredibly frustrated with my inability to converse.

However, my feelings changed slightly today as Sylvie offered to take me and two of the other English teaching assistants who arrived the day earlier on a car ride to get water. I agreed to come along, expecting to drive to a grocery or local corner store. As we backed out of the driveway, she explained that we were going up a mountain. We drove about 10 minutes then started ascending a very windy, narrow road. We started to get a better view of surrounding mountains, with every inch covered in greenery and the occasional waterfall.

After almost reaching the top, she pulled the car over to the side of the road to a small trickle coming out of the rocks. We got out, bringing with us the empty water bottles that filled the trunk. Using a funnel and part of a garden hose, we filled each bottle with the water that came from the spring. After all the bottles were filled we drove to a lookout point, to what is know as the Takamaka valley. I used by passable French to ask Sylvie questions about the terrain, the weather and whom I needed to bribe to take me for a helicopter ride through the valley.

I’m struggling with French, but with views like this, I don’t think I’ll have a problem living in La Réunion.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Cora Siebert

Cora Siebert recently graduated with an undergraduate degree in Political Science and is working in the overseas department of France, La Réunion for seven months as an English Language Assistant.

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