Why intercultural learning matters, with Cecilia Laboeuf


Since I was in elementary school, there is a type of woman I get really fascinated with: smart, self-confident, funny, attentive, powerful. Extrovert, focused, sharp. When I was 8, I didn’t really understand the feeling very well. Still, some teachers made me feel like I had to be a good kid and do my homework, that way they would have liked me more. And nothing was more important than them liking me more, more than any of my classmates. I felt invisible, and I wanted desperately to be seen, to be liked, to be loved. And I specifically wanted them to see me, like me, love me. Respect me. Care for me. Some of them did.

Now that I am a grown-up, I still get that unique feeling of fascination. Oh, what I would give to get into that body and mind if only for a day! But. Now I also learnt that I am who I am. I accepted that I will never be the most extrovert person, but I can improve other stuff like being smarter and more self-confident.

Anyway. Well, Cecilia is one of those people I’m talking about. When you’re having a conversation with her, she is present, her mind is present. This is very rare. She’s actually, really listening. She is not thinking about the next thing she’s going to say, and she’s not lecturing you (you guys know how fucking insufferable mansplaining is). I love this quality, so-very-fucking-much.

She lives in Copenhagen, so I had to send her the questions via email, which is not the best because there’s little conversation flow. But I hope you will enjoy it anyway.

Alice: Hi Cecilia. Let’s start from the basics. Who are you?

Cecilia: My name is Cecilia Leboeuf and I have a background as a teacher. I am a trainer for the European Solidarity Corps (it’s a EU volunteer program) and I work on European developmental projects. My latest is a project on the development of teaching resources for refugees in order to help integration.

A: You lived in France, Sweden, Australia and Ireland. Why did you choose to settle in Copenhagen?

C: I chose Copenhagen firstly because it was time to try living in a big city after many years in the countryside. My kids grew up and moved out, so I saw it as the perfect place to be if I want to have freedom of movement and easy access to new networks, friends and future business ventures. I love this city because even if it’s the capital, it’s quiet and clean. I use my bike to go everywhere, no need for a car.

A: One of the topics we talked about during our volunteer training was intercultural learning. I’ve been lucky to hear about this, because most international students don’t get such good preparation. It is overwhelming to move to another country, especially if you don’t know that having certain feelings is completely okay, that you’re not the only one feeling at times disoriented, frustrated and sad. Can you explain what are the most frequent challenges of living in Denmark as a young foreigner?

C: I think most people coming to Denmark experience some sort of shock. The environment is new and different. People react and act differently in certain situations, and you have to sharpen all your senses to make sure you are following the same unwritten rules. What is most frustrating, is not understanding the underlying perceptions of right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. What is normal for you in Italy can be shocking for someone in Denmark or vice versa. Let’s say: what is a good daughter in Italy? What is expected of you? Does a good daughter get an education, become independent, or does stay close by to support her parents in their old age?

A: In my experience, the intercultural learning process can be difficult and frustrating at times, but it’s also very satisfying when you start to grasp how things work.

C: It can be exhausting. It is a little bit traumatic to become clumsy and inadequate in some ways, like you become a child again and have to learn to reinterpret what you thought you knew to be the only truth. Think of it like someone who is right-handed having to only use the left hand to write. It takes time, but the frustration goes away. Use your curiosity to learn what lies behind the actions and behaviours. And be aware that it’s a phase-only if you move forward and self-develop.

A: You speak several languages. I was talking with one of the volunteers and she told me that her Hungarian is getting worse because she started to think in English. I still think in Italian, and there’s nothing more satisfying to me than having a Skype call and speak in my language. I especially miss Italian slurs so much (the English ones are not as nearly creative). Of the languages you speak, is there one that is most satisfying to use, where you feel like “Okay, this language allows me to express myself the most”?

C: Sometimes I need to express something, like a feeling or a thing, and in Danish it can only be described with sentences, but in French, there is one word for it. Most of the time it does not cause me any problems and is not something I think of too often, but if I am talking to someone who can speak several of my languages, I will use them all to express myself. I prefer speaking and writing English and Danish, because these are the languages I use the most. I tend to forget Swedish and French until I have to start using them again.

A: Do you have one that you miss the most when you don’t use it for a while?

C: I don’t really miss speaking any language. It’s not an emotional thing for me. It’s not connected so much to my identity, as I learnt to speak 3 languages before the age of 8. It’s just a mean of communication for me.

A: That is very interesting, because since I’ve been here I realized that my language is a VERY emotional thing for me. One of my best friends told me once, “Speaking in a foreign language is like acting”. You are putting up some sort of show, and that is so freeing because you can be whoever you want to be. I’ve always found that very fascinating. But personally, I don’t know how to be someone else, so when I speak in a foreign language I feel more frustrated than free, because I want to show my personality so bad, but instead it’s just some sort of persona. How do you feel when you speak a foreign language – is your “Danish you” the same as your “English you”?

C: I can see what you mean. I have been told several times by someone who is used to seeing me speak Danish and then sees me speak French that they notice I speak in a different way. Different tone of voice, different mimics, and different intensity. A bit as if I change personality. I’m not sure that you’re acting side of you. Aside from that you had not yet discovered. Embrace it! Be curious. One language allows you to express one thing in one way, and another language is perfect for expressing another thing in another way: it’s fascinating!

A: How does knowing a lot of languages and cultures influence the way you perceive and interact with other people?

C: It has enabled me to read people better. When you don’t know the language very well, in the beginning, you understand the importance of reading facial expressions, moods, body language, being able to understand the context based on very little information. Also, this has made me more flexible in the way that I think. There are more ways of doing the same thing, and via the intercultural meeting, I have learnt to stay open-minded and see solutions from more than one perspective.

A: Can you give us some tips on how to learn effectively a new language?

C: I used to introduce myself to the new language before moving to the country: I would borrow children’s books and read them out loud to myself. If there was an audio version, I would listen and repeat what I heard. The reading out loud trains my facial muscles to pronounce the new sounds and get a feeling for the sentence structures. Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes in front of others. Mistakes can be embarrassing, and therefore we are extremely motivated not to make them – therefore we learn from them. I like to think that frustration is the highest point of the learning curve, so when you get frustrated with the language, it’s your brain that’s working hard, you’re nearly there!

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