Lost in Translation: Another Language Checkpoint Passed

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:

  1. I’m not trying to be impolite. I just don’t know how to be polite.
  2. Please, please, please ask me a question. I’m much better at answering them than asking them.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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”?
  7. I’m embarrassed, disappointed and relieved when you switch to English.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Lost in Translation: Language Update

Alright folks, another language update. Since we last spoke on this, I have made what seem like baby steps, but in reality are leaps and bounds. I am not and nowhere near fluent. However, I am proud of the progress I have made. For example:

  1. I can generally understand what people are saying about superficial topics for about 5 minutes straight before I get lost. This is up from 5 seconds (if at all) from when I arrived…so a lot better.
  2. I can answer most basic questions without having the person repeat the question more than once. This is up from them having to give up and switch to English to get an answer from me.
  3. I can understand conversations happening around me as I am walking in the streets. This is up from walking in nearly total silence from blocking out literally everything said because I didn’t understand it anyway (a defense mechanism perhaps to prevent a complete system overload).
Right now, I would specifically like to improve the comprehension of my “I can’t hear you because of the loud music” French. I have discovered that when speaking in English, I almost entirely lip read in those situations. Turns out I can’t do that in French.
As far as speaking goes, it’s not quite there yet. I feel like I’ve moved up from grunting, Neanderthal French to more Homo sapien French (maybe not the guy walking completely on two legs, but not the guy beating his chest for dominance, French).
It is hard though. There are many times where I think to myself, wow, I would have a really good, articulate answer for that question in English, but since we are speaking in French, I guess I’ll just go with a solid “oui”, no elaboration and a smile. Then I feel really stupid. I want to say, “in English, I’m not stupid, just in French,” but I don’t know how to say that which illustrates my point, but only to me and then I become silently engrossed in sipping my drink.
Another thing. Sometimes my French will just drop out on me. I’ll be talking with someone, following along, following along and then…nothing. It just disappears like someone cut the power to your house. Lights out. Total darkness. Luckily, I will get a good amount of time before this happens – typically I find this happening at night. If I personified my French, it would be like a stubborn and mischievous child that locked herself in the bathroom. You can’t figure out why they are there nor can you coax them out. At this point, I know I’m done for the night. Everyone is going to have to repeat everything and you’ll be lucky to get a “oui” out of me. All that’s left to do then is admit, “that’s all folks” and make my departure.

A few new words

As you quickly realize in a foreign country, a formal foreign language education doesn’t always provide you with the words that people actually say in everyday conversation. (I would argue that to be true on both sides of the pond.) These words can be either outdated or simply too formal. Here are a few words and phrases that I have learned during my time here so far:

entre chien et loup: dawn/dusk (literally “between dog and wolf” meaning that at this time you can’t tell if the animal in front of you is a dog or a wolf)

baguette: wand (I thought this was awesomely hilarious.)

mec: guy (as in, “That guy is cute.”)

ça mache: “it works” (as in, “Do you like your new apartment?” “It’s not bad. It works.”)

copain/copine: boyfriend/girlfriend (apparently petit ami is a little old fashioned)

bon courage: have courage/good luck (This is used often as a goodbye and used more frequently, at least around here, than “bonne chance”.)

faire du chantage: blackmail (somehow that came up in one of my classes)

truc: thing (as in “that thing” or “things like that”)

bande annonce: (movie) preview

J’arrive: I’m coming (For example, a waiter might say this when he is serving other customers, but sees you and will take your order in a minute.)

bonsoir/bonne soirée: good night (Bonsoir is often a greeting, while bonne soirée is often goodbye.)

Je suis calé: I am no longer hungry (a “must know” if invited to dinner)

On va boire un pot/coup/verre!: Let’s go for a drink!

On va se balader!: Let’s go for a walk!

les bruits des escaliers: sound that you make walking on stairs

une boîte (de nuit): nightclub

parfums: flavors

Language Checkpoint #1…passed

A while back, I tweeted about being able to understand the clerk at the grocery store for the first time since I arrived. I believe that I can confirm that I have passed some sort of “checkpoint”, for lack of a better word, with my language comprehension.  I am beginning to understand people now. It happened all at once. What honestly sounded like gibberish when I arrived, just clicked early in my vacation in October and has stuck. It was like I had been standing at a door knocking and someone finally let me in.

This isn’t to say that I can express myself or understand everything anyone is saying. Not even close. However, for the first time that I have been here, I can answer basic questions. I can discern what words people are saying instead hearing a rushing river of sounds coming out of their mouth. People don’t always answer me in English. The teachers at one of my high schools even said that my French had improved during the vacation. (To be fair, I have probably also improved my ability to hide my confused face.)

Nevertheless, I am excited to see some progress and am looking forward to that next “checkpoint” for comprehension. I’m hoping it will mean that I can have short conversations with people, or not have to preface most interactions with “I’m an American. I’m sorry, I don’t speak French very well.”


When you meet someone in France, they say, “enchanté.” That literally means, “Nice to meet you.” Because of how it is used in films or colloquially in the United States, it still catches me off guard. (Think about movies where the dashing and charming young man in the film kisses the hand of a young girl, in a formal gown, and says “enchanté” with a sparkle in his eye and that suave and also “I’m up to no good” voice. This is apparently the only way that I have seen “enchanté” used before coming to France.)

Someone (men) will say that to me and I have this moment where my face goes red and I’m thinking, “wow, that was inappropriately flirtatious.” Then, my face gets even redder when I remember that it is not at all flirtatious and, in fact, perfectly normal.

It is SO hard not to be awkward in another country.

How to Fake French

I wanted to share this video that was recently shared with me called “How to Fake French”. Why this wasn’t included in our orientation, I don’t know. I think it would have been very helpful!

More blog posts to come starting this weekend! We just got back to school from a two-week vacation (two weeks of work, then two weeks of vacation…I could get used to that!), so I am trying to get out of “vacation mode” and back into “work mode” (including sitting down and writing).

À demain!

Lost in Translation

I remember this from before in studying abroad, but since I was in an English-speaking country, it wasn’t as big of a deal.

You hit a point where you are stuck between two languages. You are trying to say something and you can’t get it out. For me, I will be mid-sentence and realize that I don’t know the French word, but for the life of me cannot remember what the word is in English. I’m not talking about long words like anesthesiology, I am talking about words like cake.

I am inclined to say that it is a good sign. My brain is trying to function in French, and that’s why I’m losing my English a little. If that’s the case, I’ll take it.

Another interesting thing, and this was definitely the case in Ghana, is my use of inflection with English is changing. In Ghana, they used slightly different inflection and in France it is the same.

We’ll say that if my writing turns out to be a little odd…you can blame it on that 🙂

How to embarrass yourself in France 101

First lesson: how to insult someone while trying to be extra appreciative.

In French, “merci” means “thank you”. If you want to say something like, “thank you very much”, it is “merci beaucoup”.

Seems simple enough, right?

Well, apparently you have to be careful in your pronunciation. When Americans or other native English speakers pronounce “beaucoup”, it can come out as “beau cul”. Guess what that means? “Beau cul” means “nice ass”.

I have talked to a couple of people who have accidentally said this to shopkeepers or secretaries at schools. They got quite the look. For the lucky ones, the person recognized that they were not native French speakers and explained the difference. The others…well, I guess they just left quite the impression.

Luckily I was warned, but there are no guarantees that I won’t mess this up because, frankly, I can’t hear the difference.

Parlez-vous français?

Last Friday, I met up with a group of language assistants and we got to talking about speaking French. It was such a relief to me to hear that many of us were on the same level. We were all proficient, could always use more vocabulary, but mostly just wavering in confidence. For me in the shops, it seems to go like this:

Person: Bonjour!
Me: Bonjour! (Whew, got that one.)
Me: In French. Can you help me with X? (Okay good that came out just like I practiced and he/she seems to understand.)
Person: Blah, blah blah, blah.
Me: Petrified look on my face. (Um, oh God. He/she responded to me in French. I mean, I expected them to respond in French. Eh, that wasn’t what I expected him/her to say. In fact, now that I think of it, I didn’t get this far in my head.)
Person: Confused look.
Me: In French. I am American. I am sorry, but I don’t speak French very well.

Then usually we’ve continued on in a combination of broken French and English. The good encounters anyway. The other ones, it usually just ends with me saying I don’t understand and that kind of ends it. Announcements at the train station or airport? Nada. Don’t understand a thing. Shows on tv? Not a clue.

And, very soon, I am going to have to start calling landlords about places. Ha, that’s going to be an adventure. In any event, it was comforting to hear that a lot of people were in the same boat. They didn’t come with perfectly fluent French and they wanted to learn too. With each day, I feel like I am improving. I’m thinking more in French. I catch a word or two more. Learn a new word. Or just feel less awkward speaking it. It will be a long road to get where I want to go with fluency. The trick will be to keep forcing myself to speak French and not take the easy way out every time I learn someone speaks English. For the first week, I am not going to be so hard on myself. If I am going to sign a lease, open a bank account and do other things like that, I think it’s okay that I actually know what’s going on rather than stick to my principles about always speaking French.