In recent years I’ve solidified my response to the question: “Do you speak French?” I respond: “Sure, I speak conversationally, but I probably couldn’t talk confidently about (insert extremely political or historical fact here),” for example, seventh-century Babylonian advances in astronomy.
Although it’s questionable I could even have that particular conversation in English, the point is that my French vocabulary does not exceed that of a fourth-grader. Well, here I am, currently studying abroad for an entire semester in Lyon, France. But since I’m no longer a fourth-grader, I am doomed to encounter conversations that require a more-than-colloquial lexicon.
Take trying to get a cell phone — un portable! — for instance. Although the associated vocabulary may not be as esoteric as trying to converse with someone about the effects the Venezuelan War of Independence had on the national economy in 1819, I experienced similar struggles trying to ask a friendly but confused man about my phone plan. Does this “thing” do “something,” that costs “how much?” and “is it good?” doesn’t make sense to me, either.
Anyone who has ever taken a language course will understand me when I say my everyday life is comparable to a never-ending listening comprehension exercise, with the four multiple choice options being A. Smile B. Nod C. Say “Quoi?” D. Run away. Struggling to understand each word isn’t the trickiest part. Figuring out in a timely manner what a series of words means to a conversation and what exactly someone else wants from me is.
I sit alone in a park listening to slang-filled conversations, wondering what the 16-year-old boys are talking about. I feel intellectually inferior to small children, who are able to converse more fluently with adults than I can. I sit in my lecture courses, peering over at the French student’s notes to see what she’s writing because I have aucune idée what the professor said. I sit in taxis and hear the evening news on the radio, concluding that keeping up with American headlines only will have to suffice.
I’m curieuse to see how quickly my brain will conform to this long-studied language in a nouveau place. I’ve always heard that it’s “so easy!” to learn a language by living in a country or place where it is spoken, and I’m hoping to find this is true — as soon as possible.
If I dress in dark colors, smoke a cigarette and stare straight ahead as I’m walking, I could easily pass as a French girl. But when I open my mouth to spit out textbook phrases in a dangerously American accent, all hope of social acceptance flies out the window. The shape of my interlocutor’s eyes sharpens, her neck elongates, and her rapidity of speech drastically slows as she resorts to a more basic vocabulary. I feel thankful for the help but also feel like laughing for causing a person to go through a comically exaggerated facial reaction just by uttering a single sentence.
Being accepted through language by a society is one of the most valuable comforts we have in our native countries. I will no longer take this for granted, which is why I enter the relief zone that is my apartment I share with two other U.Va. students who are both native English speakers, turn off français mode and feel safe knowing no one within these (small) walls will isolate me because of a lack of communication skills.
Valerie’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at email@example.com.