Les rêveries du retraité solitaire

Les rêveries du retraité solitaire

Speaking a Second Language and Playing Tennis

Jean Lapointe is a singer, songwriter and comedian from Quebec, born in 1935, who was invited to the Ed Sullivan Show at the end of the 1950s or the beginning of the 1960s. Even if everything went well, he refused a second invitation to appear on the show. During an interview on a late night American talk show, he was asked why he didn’t want to pursue a career in the United States. His said that since he spoke English as a second language, it often took him three or four seconds to react to a comment or question. He added that when you’re a comedian, people expect you to react very quickly. It’s like playing tennis. You always have to be on your toes.


A few years ago, my wife and I were horseback riding in Jamaica. The guide asked me a question. Before I could process the information and come up with an answer, he asked me with a bit of impatience in his voice if I could speak English. I thought about what Jean Lapointe had said, and his decision made sense to me. Speaking is like playing tennis. If you’re speaking with a native speaker in a language that is for you a second or a third language, it’s like playing tennis with a pro when you’re a beginner or an intermediate player.


For me, it’s often easier to have a discussion (I'm not talking about a casual conversation) in English with someone who doesn’t speak English as a first language. It’s easier for me to express opinions and ideas in English with a Cuban, a German or Japanese who has a good theoretical knowledge of English, and an accent that is not too thick, than with a Jamaican, an American or a Canadian who thinks and speaks a lot faster than me. People who speak a second language tend to speak slower, they pronounce everything, and they don’t use as many idiomatic expressions. They also use a more standard, by the book, way of speaking. Just like in tennis, it’s a lot easier to play with someone who is at your own level. You can see the ball coming, and you have time to prepare. However, sometimes it’s good to play with a partner who is better than you to improve your speed and skills, but you have to know that you’ll have to run faster and that you’ll need to stop once in a while to catch your breath.

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