How do you feel about speaking a foreign language, even if it’s just a few words? Do you dive in and learn a few phrases? Or do you cross your fingers and hope that somebody will speak English? There are just too many languages that don’t resemble each other at all; it’s impossible to learn everything or even several, but a few phrases can engender a lot of goodwill.
Sometimes you have to get creative. When I first went to China, the country had two currencies, one for locals and one for foreigners. Well, actually, foreigners got “foreign exchange certificates,” which looked like money even if officially they weren’t. They had engravings of famous sights. So when I wanted to know whether I was going the right direction to the Temple of Heaven, I stopped someone on the street and showed them a note with the Temple of Heaven on it, pointing at the picture and then at the street, with eyebrows rising as a question. The guy was fascinated by the strange bank note, which he had never seen before. He was with a friend was so nervous he was practically wrenching the friend’s hand off his arm. Then he carefully and laboriously said: “Do. You. Speak. English?” Bingo! I had run into the one guy who could communicate with me, because in the 1980s, your average Chinese on the street didn’t speak other languages. I was jumping for joy–yes! I speak English! And he twisted and pulled his friend’s hand, took a deep breath and blurted out: “GO FORWARD!”
The facts have been lost in the fog of passing years, but I think my francophilia dates to reading Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans, about the audacious redhead and her adventures in Paris. I was simultaneously sad for her–boarding school! with nuns! and apendicitis!–and insanely jealous–PARIS!!!
I made do with posters of Paris on my walls until I finally got to go to the City of Light in person. I had four years of high school French, which I thought made me pretty darn good. Memories of my first trip to Paris also another thing mostly obscured by the fog of passing years, but I am sure of one thing, which is that I didn’t speak (or hear) as well as I thought.Years later, I took adult French classes at the New School in New York. One teacher was actually French and had us do the weirdest exercises–she would dictate a paragraph from a book, and we’d have to write it down, punctuation and all. You could end up with a negative score, once she marked off for spelling and accents, not to mention having misheard a completely wrong word (and she was insistent on grading us, even though it was a non-credit adult course). Only much later, when my own kid was in school in France, did I learn that this was a regular thing in French education: la dictée.She also tried mightily to improve our pronunciation. We used a book, Exercises in French Phonics, but I was still so focused on the difficult vowel combinations (euil!!! that one took forever to learn) and when final consonants or entire endings were silent (-ent on the end of third-person plural verbs in present tense: how do you not say THREE LETTERS???) and the whole nasal vowel thing that I didn’t pay much attention to the sounds I didn’t even register as different.Oliver Gee at the Earful Tower had a great podcast about fear of speaking French, and he confesses that he had only recently realized that tu and vous didn’t rhyme (tu is the singular form of you while vous is the plural form as well as the singular in formal situations). That was certainly my case back then. I went on a hiking trip in Morocco with Nouvelles Frontières, in which I was the only non-French person. One of the other hikers said, “so for you it’s an adventure trip AND a language course.” In the evenings, we would play games, often cards. One day I suggested charades. They had no idea about charades, which surprised me, because I thought it was a French word. Anyway, I taught them how to play. When I did “sounds like,” they failed again and again to get my clue. Finally I explained the clue, and they hooted with laughter because it was that u/ou mistake–to them the clue didn’t sound like the desired word at all–the equivalent of thinking pool and pole sound alike. I could not get my mouth to produce u like the French, and I did not hear the difference.But that was the least of my humiliations. There was the time when I told a taxi driver to take me to the North Station for the train. His head whipped around so fast it was like in cartoons. And then I realized I had pronounced it guerre du Nord instead of Gare du Nord–I had asked to be taken to the Northern War. The driver very kindly didn’t rub my nose in the mistake.In fact, the French have a very charming way of correcting your mistakes. They won’t outright correct you–instead they will say what you should have said. If I stupidly say I want un livre de cerises–to ask for a pound of cherries (and people do say livre/pound for 500 grams), the vendor will sweetly say, “D’accord! Une livre de cerises.” Un livre–masculine–is a book. Une livre–feminine–is a pound. Or at the bakery, a request for a pain au chocolat will be met with “voilà, une chocolatine,” the name chocolate-filled croissants are called in the southern half of France.My other New School teachers were Americans and much more pragmatic. One gave us lists of phrases to memorize. When one of the students moans, she barked, “Only when these phrases roll off your tongue naturally can you even start to advance to conversations. I will not have dilletantes in my class!” (This was said to a class of mostly retirees who just wanted to brush up their French before going on vacation.)The other teacher offered hacks. The most common verb infinitive ends with -er; when speaking to an individual formally or to a group you use vous, and the conjugation of -er verbs with vous ends with -ez, which sounds just like -er: both sound like A. She encouraged us to be formal and address everybody as vous, and we wouldn’t have to sweat the verb conjugation. It was a good hack until I made friends and had to learn the conjugations with tu.My French is much, much better these days, although I still make mistakes, especially with the gender of nouns. And I cannot get rid of my accent. I think of my grandmother, who left Europe to move to the U.S. when she was about seven and whose accent was still perceptible nine decades years later. And then there are people like Jodie Foster–when watching one of her movies on TV I was struck that her dubbed voice sounded uncannily like her real voice–rare with dubbing. So I sat through the credits and saw that, yes, she dubbed herself. With a perfect accent.People judge when you have an accent. Some people think it’s amazing that you speak another language, and you get credit for being smart, often more credit than you deserve. An accent can sound exotic or seductive.Other people think you must be stupid. I got that, too. It’s one thing to communicate basic facts; it’s a long slog before you are able to crack a joke or express nuance in another language. I remember being at a meeting of the parent-teacher association and one of the other parents making a derisive remark about me as if I wouldn’t understand what he had said. It made me think of other people who are émigrés/immigrants, trying to fit into their new lives, being judged on criterion that don’t accurately measure who they are. I have the benefit of looking like any other French woman walking down the street; it’s only when I open my mouth that people know I’m not from here. For others, that judgment happens before any interaction even begins, because their skin color or their dress sets them out as different. It must be exhausting. Living abroad gives me more compassion to those who are strangers in a strange land, just trying to live their lives. I think the negative reactions come from a fear of the unknown, of being left out. I always spoke to my kid in English, and my husband always spoke in French, with the result that our kid is bilingual without trying. My husband told me I should speak only in French to our kid in public places, but I thought it was silly to switch languages just so other people would be able to eavesdrop more easily, and to hear what? “Put on your coat”/”Quit dawdling”/”What’s for dinner?” Nobody should be deprived of such scintillating stuff. At the same time, other parents would ask me to teach their kids English; I doubt many Arabic-speaking parents were solicited for language lessons.I learn new things in French every day. It’s a great adventure. Each discovery is a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that fits with other pieces, sometimes in surprising ways, and gives me a better picture of the people, the culture, the history. There is no shame in mistakes; the only people who don’t make mistakes are those who never try anything.