Where I’m At

For my grandparents, who tried traveling in Québec many years ago and immediately made for the exit. It seemed nobody wanted to help English-speaking tourists then. Today I can go purposely in search of a French immersion experience yet can’t keep strangers from switching to English with me. So you guys should try it again. Happy Grandparents Day, a little late!

When I say that I still don’t speak French fluently, after nearly four years of trying, most people are surprised to hear that. “Really, still??” a friend from home asked just the other day. These were probably a few of the thoughts running through his head:

  1. But you live in a French-speaking country with a French-speaking husband!
  2. What have you been doing for four years then??
  3. I feel like I’m making quick progress as a beginner! What’s wrong with you?
  4. OMG, how long does it really take then??

I get this reaction a lot. But mostly from other Americans like me, who by and large are monolingual, or who have only scratched the surface with a second language. The only people not surprised at my lack of fluency include: 1) anyone actually French, who by contrast are surprised to see me hanging in there and are usually effusively complimentary; and 2) anyone who has reached fluency in a second language as an adult and therefore knows how long it takes. Until you’ve put yourself through the process, it’s hard to imagine.

The surprised reaction could also be because the word “fluent” means different things to different people. I wouldn’t describe myself as fluent but “functional,” which means I can move about relatively easily in a French-speaking place, accomplishing what needs to be accomplished. In France three years ago as a relative beginner I could shop, get directions, check in and out of hotels, resolve disputes between a friend and an angry wine tour bag policewoman, and get our pre-booked but unprintable train tickets from the “no understand English” people behind the counter. (All of this was laborious, but possible.) After my first intensive course there I could chit-chat with strangers in restaurants for twenty minutes or so before we ran out of conversation. In Québec last year I could get my hair cut and colored while chatting about the weather and telling my life’s story (the short version you usually give to an inquisitive hairdresser, and a rare treat that he stayed in French with me). The other day in Congo I was talking in pretty good detail with my maid about things like marriage certificates, raising children, thievery and other local customs. She often has to hide her rolling eyes at my mistakes but hey, she gets paid for that. The majority of my daily practice with French is thanks to her, actually.

So when it comes to basic needs, I can function just fine, albeit with frequent mistakes while speaking and asking for frequent repetitions while listening. A lot of people would stop here and declare themselves fluent. Ease of travel is their goal, including enough chit-chat to meet people along the way, and that goal is not too terribly hard to reach. What more is there?

There’s a lot more. I’m reminded of it often, given my French-speaking husband, his family and friends that we visit in Québec, and his French-speaking coworkers here in Congo. There are a lot of opportunities to go beyond the basic needs described above and enter the realm of philosophy, politics, story-telling, making fun of people. Most of these conversations occur over dinner, at a social function, or at a bar, with multiple people having multiple rapid, slang-filled, inside-joke conversations with lots of background noise. Slowly but surely I know I’m making progress, but my inability to follow along with ease hits me squarely in the face on these occasions. That’s the fluency I’m talking about when I say I’m not there yet.

But how about that French-speaking husband of yours… surely he’s taught you by now! is what a lot of people must be thinking. Ha! I say to them. He has taught me French about as well as I have taught him English. (If you know Seb then you know how funny this is.) We have made resolutions from time to time, usually after I’ve taken an intensive course on “vacation” somewhere, to speak only French to each other at home. These resolutions last no more than 30 minutes. (That’s being generous, I think.) It hurts his ears and my pride too much to carry on, so we quickly switch back to English. That’s the language we’ve always used with each other, and old habits die hard.

Plus, I’ve always heard that it’s generally a bad idea for one spouse who is an expert in something to try to teach it to the other. Imagine Gordon Ramsey trying to teach his wife how to cook. (I don’t know who she is, but let’s just assume she’s no Gordon Ramsey.) There are probably some couples out there who can do it, but generally, this sounds like a recipe for disaster. We might have better luck helping each other learn Korean, something neither one of us knows anything about.

So that’s where I’m at. Functional but not fluent. Comfortable with the basic stuff but frozen like a deer in headlights with the rest. Sort of stuck on a never-ending intermediate-level plateau. As for where I’m literally at, I just arrived this morning in Paris, exactly three years to the day (unplanned!) after coming here for my first intensive language class. Next week I start my third. Let’s see if we can’t kick this thing up a notch.

12 comments

  1. For the record, I have to say, my husband is absolutely fluent in English!! He makes certain mistakes over and over again, but this (plus his adorable accent) is just part of his charm. When it comes to real vocabulary though, he teaches me new words — in English — all the time!

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  2. You remembered how hard it was for us to order a simple meal and find a tour bus in Quebec!! Yes, we were amazed that we didn’t get more help there but we should have learned some basics in French before we tried to enter into their world! On the outside looking in, I think French would be the hardest for me to learn, yet I hear lots of people in Topeka speaking Spanish and I have no clue what they are saying because they speak so fast. Grandpa and I are at the age where we like to get movies with English words on the scene so we can keep up in our own language!!
    I think it is wonderful that your maid will help you in French.
    Love you granddaughter!!

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    1. Haha, I know what you mean, sometimes I need subtitles in English too! Especially movies with heavy accents, which, ironically, Seb always understands better than I do. He always teases me that he can speak Globish while I only speak American English. 😉

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  3. I love Seb’s accent when he speaks English, even though I have a ‘deer in the headlights’ look on my face sometimes. But French sounds like Greek to me! I have no idea what anyone is saying.
    Have a good time in France and learn lots. Stay safe!
    Love,Mom

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    1. I had that look on my face last night while trying to watch a French film. Often I can catch quite a bit but this one was harder for me. And this just after finishing my third class. Dammit! Looks like I’ll have to keep studying 😉

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  4. Jenn, I love the way you explained that! Even with my fluency in French, I feel so frustrated so often when speaking with unilingual frenchies. I can’t use all of words that I grew up using in a bilingual environment in Alberta. When you don’t use a language to as you say “make fun of people” haha, so true, it’s just not the same. I’m always glad to switch back to English to truly be able to express myself. I never feel quite as cool, witty or funny in French. I’ll have lots of time and opportunity to practice very soon. Enjoy Paris!!

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    1. Yesssss… I feel ridiculously false and inadequate even when just trying to say that something is good. (Plus there’s a lot of ways I get this wrong. Bon for food, bien for everything else, except if it’s feminine then bonne, and where does beau fit in again? Good grief.) Gala, if one day I could speak French like you I would be super stoked! It’s amazing to me that even you feel kind of held back when expressing yourself — holy cow. More evidence that fluency is a very, very long-term goal for me. In the meantime I will lean on you for lots of help when we are in Québec together!!

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