Three years ago before I left for France the first time around, I remember my professor Aletha Stahl telling us in orientation that we were going to make a lot of mistakes when speaking, and it’s just something we would have to get used to. I also remember secretly telling myself, “I will be the exception. I will be so concentrated and precise, that I will be sure not to make any mistakes.”
Thinking back on it now, it’s absolutely laughable, even illogical to think that I could walk into a foreign country speaking the language perfectly. And after my first couple of days in France tripping over the language and lacking the vocabulary to explain my day, I quickly abandoned any delusions of grandeur I held about my skills.
Coming back to France the second time however, I feel like I repeated the same mistake twice. I certainly didn’t think that I could speak perfectly, but I had perhaps more confidence than was warranted for someone who hadn’t been immersed in the language for three years. This became evident in Paris, when I was in the metro station with a group of people from the hostel. The last train had already come, and a woman’s voice came over the intercom announcing that the metro was closed for the night.
“What did she say?” asked a guy in my group.
I got the gist of it, but with the woman speaking so fast and having no context or visual to connect the audio to, I didn’t feel completely sure.
“I thought you knew French!” he told me, and I felt a wave of embarrassment.
It is frustrating that after nearly a decade of studying this language – majoring in it, loving it, immersing myself in it – that there are still many ways in which I cannot express myself adequately or understand completely. I stumble on words and use the wrong ones often, and my level of comprehension fluctuates greatly depending on who I am talking to, what their accent is, the list goes on. I especially dread the phone when I don’t know who is speaking on the other end, so void of context I sometimes feel as though I can only hear a string of vowels and consonants rapidly exiting someone’s mouth.
On the other side of the coin, I can still sit and have conversations with people for hours about subjects like cultural differences and food, or more obscure topics like outdoor camping and license plates. I can fully understand radio debates on philosophy and politics and read newspapers without difficulty. I dream in French, and sometimes I even find myself thinking in it.
But once you reach a certain level, there is always a higher level of ability to aspire to. The nuances become more apparent, and subsequently more important. The way the French stress certain words, the pitch and intonation, the staccato sounds of agreement, even the way they breath in before or while speaking all take meticulous observation and acting to emulate.
It’s like that saying, the more you learn the less you know. Mastering a language requires a great deal of commitment and humility, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever know how to answer someone honestly when they ask me, “So, are you fluent in French?”