“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”
― Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
Once upon a time, I had pretty decent schoolgirl French capabilities. I studied it Middle and High School (with a one year break for Latin, which I had to give up when we moved to a godforsaken island in the Pacific ocean…not that I have any remaining linguistic bitterness or anything). I also took two additional years of it at university, after which I quit so I could take other time heavy courses like Art History of the Northern Renaissance (which I talked my way into without any other Art History credentials) and Comparative Literature of the Early 18th Century.
My nerdiness is well established, yes?
Anyway, I was proud of my French. I’ll be the first to admit that it wasn’t always technically strong, I never really learned how to study properly until my last couple of years at university and grammar was always difficult, but my usage was great. More than one teacher questioned in interviews how I could get only moderate scores on written exams while being able to speak it well. The answer was, I used it. For two summers I lived and interned at NATO in Brussels, which is a multilingual organization. I heard it all the time, I used it out and about in the city, I read it everywhere on signs. I learn best by doing and that’s been as true for languages as any other skill I’ve tried to acquire. Heck, I even picked up a bit of Flemish Dutch just by listening to it and getting subtitles on every TV program.
But after I quit French, I didn’t get the chance to practice it again except for an occasional film. It slid into disuse. Because my technical skills weren’t as well developed, I actually felt it slipping from my grasp over time. My accent (which had once been complimented by a Parisian waiter who initially mistook me for a native speaker, high praise) got clunky and awkward in my own ears, my mouth forgot how to form itself to produce the correct sounds.
As we were gearing up for Paris Jeff kept teasing about making me speak to strangers or order food for everyone, but the truth is I was terrified. I wanted to practice my lost language but the very idea seemed overwhelming. The first day and a half was hard. I could read the placards and exhibitions information at Versailles, but it took effort. I ordered my food in French but even then I winced at a couple of the errors I made. (For what it’s worth, I have found Parisians entirely thrilled to hear a tourist even attempting to speak French, it makes a nice change from preppy American students shouting, “Please speak English!” at them across counters. Which we saw a lot of.)
But something amazing happened on the Metro on day two. I’d spent the day listening hard (in the least creepy way possible) to conversations around me and suddenly, from one moment to the next, something clicked in my brain. An announcement came on over the PA…and I understood it. The fast jabber of talk around me still was hard to grasp, but I understood what the conversations were and how they were progressing. A lovely little old lady stopped us on the street to ask for directions and I was able to apologize, explain our tourist status, and exchange pleasantries without a hiccup.
We went for crepes to celebrate (not really, we were on our way for crepes anyway, but Francophone pride certainly added some je ne sais quoi to the whole affair) and I was able to order for both of us and have the briefest of conversations with the delightful proprietor.
He’s the gentleman in the blue shirt, and I’m a fan. He’s a love!
Good looking husband is good looking.
Know what else is good looking? That pear, chocolate, and cream stuffed flirt!
It probably seems really dinky but I was thrilled to realize that even though it’s rusty, my French is still there. If I learned it by doing, I’m suddenly confident in a way I haven’t felt in years that I could remember by doing as well. As it happens, on our second crepe endeavor, besides the Eiffel Tower, I was again complimented by a Parisian on my language skills. He didn’t mistake me for a Native, but he did ask if I was Canadian. All things considered, and years without practice, I think I’ll take that as high praise as well.
3 thoughts on “Crepes and Lingua Franca”
Language is a funny thing, isn’t it? I find that the languages I learnt in my childhood and growing up, has stayed with me, despite disuse, whereas my Spanish, after years of study, will fade if I stop practising it – which I have, now that I’m no longer travelling in South America. I’ve decided the only way to overcome this is to move to Buenos Aires. Perhaps you should consider moving to Paris? 😉 All the in name of language improvement, of course!
Naturally, of course 😉
Language really is a muscle isn’t it? It’s use it or lose it.
I think with language it’s all about overcoming that fear of looking (and sounding) stupid. I’m always afraid to use my Spanish because I don’t want to make embarrassing mistakes, but with a couple of my previous jobs, I had situations where there was an urgent need for a Spanish-speaker, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well I was able to cover.
Actually used French in the workplace once as well, despite having zero formal training (aside from 6 weeks with Mme Ray in 6th grade! Ha). It turns out French and Italian really ARE interchangeable, at least when it comes to Habitat for Humanity transactions…
And this post definitely seems like a valid reason to visit Paris often. Keep those skills fresh! 🙂