a belgian adolescence

Growing up in a military family, I lived many different places over the years. The longest time my family ever lived anywhere was Mons, Belgium: 1979-1983. I’ve mentioned this here before, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned some of the perhaps surprising parts of this experience.

First, in an age before the Internet and widespread European cable tv, we were a few years behind the times when it came to American culture. For example, I wore bell-bottoms much longer than I should have. I was still listening to ’70s rock bands when people back home had moved on to New Wave. My family had a tiny black and white tv that only picked up one station: the Armed Forces Network. I think we watched maybe an hour or two a week of the meager offerings, which were usually a year or more old. We listened to AFN radio, too, which was a very eclectic mix (hour-by-hour) of pop, rock, and country…oh, and Paul Harvey.

In the northern half of Belgium Flemish is spoken while French is the language in the southern half, where we lived. For some reason, it was deemed a good idea when we arrived to put me immediately into a French language school as opposed to the American high school all my friends attended. Mind you, I didn’t speak any French. I’m not entirely sure what the logic of that particular decision was, but it should come as no surprise to you that I did not do very well at math, Latin, social studies, and my other courses. Why? Because I didn’t speak French. Yet the reaction of the adults in my life was that my failures in school were due to my bad attitude rather than to the experience of constantly listening to lectures and discussions that sounded like Qwerpoiua apodsq po poiasduq jpqpoi dkopqrq jkp. When I manage to remember in an affective way what that experience was like, I empathize with students who have learning disabilities or who are dealing with other crises in their lives that get in the way of understanding course material as easily as others do.

This was the year of the really bad stomachaches. I began to have my first inklings that adults were not all they’re cracked up to be.

to be continued…

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3 thoughts on “a belgian adolescence

  1. Did you learn French?
    In 1978 we moved from Australia to Norway and I went straight to Norwegian school. I remember it as exciting, and I remember rolling down hills with kids and smiling and laughing and not understanding but revelling in how interesting and exotic they all thought I was. And then six weeks in (my mother tells me) I came home one afternoon and told her all about a story my teacher had told the class. “Did she translate it for you?” my mum asked. And to my surprise, apparently, I had realised that no, I simply understood it.
    I was only seven though, probably a perfect age for learning languages. My little sister was four and a half and refused to speak anything but English for over half a year. I think kids handle languages and not understanding very differently, and no doubt there are many factors apart from the language itself at play: age, how you feel about moving in the first place, how those foreign-speaking kids treats you and so on.
    How old were you in 1979? Or is that a cheeky question?

  2. Ahahaha, new wave lived through the 80s in Belgium!!
    (I can know, because I was born and raised in Flanders and lived through the 90s listening to Anne Clarke.)
    As a teacher at a Flemish school in Brussels I am constantly confronted with the strange choices parents make for their children. I think more than half of my students doesn’t speak Dutch at home (yes, we speak Dutch, not Flemish…) Some of them have such a minor knowledge of the language in which they are taught that they actually belong in a French language school. But some people simply don’t want to see where the actual problem is with their kid…

  3. Jill, I was 12 in 1979 (I turn 38 in about two weeks). Your experience makes me realize how many different variables there probably were affecting my experience. Yes, I did eventually learn French, and it has stuck with me well enough over the years that when I went to France this summer I could get by without people realizing I’m American. However, while my accent remains quite good, and I can understand spoken French pretty well, my vocabulary is limited. So I began to refer to myself as a smart French dolphin: able to follow much of what was being said, but unable to express more than a few simple ideas.
    I attended school on a NATO base, so my fellow classmates were from a variety of different countries: France, Holland, Denmark, and Turkey are the nations I remember being represented. I think the Belgian kids went to local, off-base schools. There were two other white American boys like me, and we stuck together, which probably didn’t help the whole “assimilation” process.
    The year after this, I entered the American high school (actually part of the same building as the French-speaking school), and my immersion was over. It was not a happy time. So did the language difficulty cause the unhappiness, or did the unhappiness cause the language difficulty? How “happy” are most American kids between the ages of 12 and 16?
    Frances, I realize that New Wave music was probably quite popular in Belgium from very early on, but American kids living at this particular NATO base were not listening to it much between the years 1979 and 1983. [Wikipedia on Flemish.]

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