As I sat recently at a language cafe (a language exchange), it sunk in just how much progress I have made so far with my French. Am I fluent? Absolutely not. However, I have progressed from “can you feel my eyes burning through your head like lasers from my high level of concentration in trying to discern even one word” to “I am maintaining socially acceptable eye contact with you”. In other words, I have gone from just picking out words here and there, praying that they are the important ones, stringing them together to form a general thought and then having to switch to English anyway to getting the gist of what is said and recognizing when there are words I don’t know.
So, I would say that my comprehension is on the right track. What I didn’t realize is that comprehension and speaking don’t just come to you all in one blow. No. While I may be able to better understand (and actually understand not just smile and nod), I still really struggle with speaking. Here are the top 10 things I wish French people knew when they speak to me:
- I’m not trying to be impolite. I just don’t know how to be polite.
- Please, please, please ask me a question. I’m much better at answering them than asking them.
- On the same token, I want to ask you questions and be conversational, but I just can’t seem to come up with any questions because I know that means I have to translate them into French. Plus I will have no idea what to do when you answer other than smile and nod awkwardly.
- If I don’t understand you, I’m just going to say yes. Feel free to call me out on it, but there’s a good chance that I’m not going to understand.
- In my head, I have an elaborate and eloquent response in English that will likely come out as “it’s good” in French or some other two-word, caveman grunt response.
- I have intelligent opinions and probing questions to ask, but when it comes down to it, all that comes out it “ça va?” (how’s it going?). Or “nice weather huh”?
- I’m embarrassed, disappointed and relieved when you switch to English.
- I’m not shy in my home country, but if you ask if I am, I’ll probably tell you I am because it is easier than explaining that I can’t speak the language. Plus, if I say I’m not, you will probably try to talk to me and I’m already pretty overwhelmed.
- I want to practice my French, but it is hard. Harder than I ever imagined. Because language isn’t just the spoken word, it is body language, the verbal sounds, the expressions…and I just can’t get it all at once.
- Don’t call me. I won’t answer. Phones are the most terrifying thing in a foreign language. Some days you’ll be lucky if you get even an “Idon’tknowIdon’tknowClick,” out of me.