I’ve been filling out a job application. It asks me what other languages I speak and to rate my level of fluency: beginner, intermediate, professional, or fluent. What an interesting question. It’s been 6 months now. So, how has my French progressed? 

Let me start by reminding you that progress isn’t always linear.  In this case, it probably is better represented by a coloring book than a line.

I’d love to attach one to this job application. Whoever gets it will leaf through and note that half of the pages have been scribbled on but nothing filled in. Upon closer inspection they’ll see that certain elements have been given special attention. Maybe there’s a bit of green on a blade of grass, a tint of red on a rabbit’s nose, a corner of sky colored blue. And then they’ll run into some odd color choices, a blue giraffe, a pink carrot…mishaps clearly. Then perhaps I’ve gone off the grid entirely and added a flying unicorn on this page or hidden a gnome somewhere on the next (I’ve never been good at staying in between the lines)… 

I’ve dabbled here and there and I’ve made some mistakes.  The book hasn’t been completed yet.  While the progress isn’t always evident, even spotty at best, at least I’m still a work in progress. 

After 6 months, “still a work in progress” doesn’t sound too promising. Take a look at any of my old coloring books and you’ll probably doubt the likelihood of me growing up to create art.  Success isn’t always linear. And as most things in life, it isn’t very neat either. 

I’ve always loved the idea of language, the philosophy behind it, the implications and broader social consequences of replacing “ca va?” with “ca. av?”, the history that led to the delicate formations between formal and informal speech…  But my application of language and its fundamental principles has always left me wanting. I fail at practice. I’m a theory person, through and through. I know that doesn’t make much sense to you practical folks out there, but this is the only way I can explain it. It warms my soul to float in that inbetween space, just above the tangible and just below the ideal, wondering about their meeting point. 
My successes in French communcation are like gleaming, elusive victories. They make me excited to continue learning and participating. But my failures and shortcomings in comprehension and grammar usage are daunting beyond belief. They cloud my judgment. I can’t tell you what my level of French is. 
I can have a successful meeting with someone at my bank and we understand each other easily. Speaking French comes as smoothly as running water. Complete sentences are made, little jokes sprinkled here and there, comprehension all around.  I’ve had a human connection. And then a few days later,  I sit down at a restaurant, order two chocolat-banane crêpes, and my friend and I are served two sucrée-beurre crêpes instead.  It would be lovely to blame this on poor service by our waitress, but I can’t ignore the fact that she’s the native speaker and I’m the timid French-as-a-second-language customer.

I’ve had some other mishaps being the French-as-a-second-language speaker. A few months back one of the accounting teachers I work with stopped me while I was going to her class, said something about an “examen,” then threw a “à tout à l’heure!” at me. She left me staring after her as she ran in the opposite direction.  I thought she’d said, “I’ll see you later,” as in, “I don’t need you because there’s an exam,” so I left.  I found out later what she really meant was “See you in 5 minutes.” I had left the school for no reason. It took talking to another native French speaker to learn that “à tout à l’heure” can mean see you in 5 hours or see you in 5 minutes. Talk about failure.

But then today I had a remarkable moment in an everyday sort of situation. One of the teachers in the staff room didn’t know how to format columns in her Word document. None of the other teachers knew how to do it either. They couldn’t even think of the word columnes (columns) and could only describe it as “mets comme sur le tableau” (put it like on the board).  So I said, “Excusez-moi,” and listed out the instructions in confident French. The teacher was so surprised and grateful, she touched my hand, said “Thank you” in rusty English. I felt like a hero. Win. Shiny elusive victory. 

Such a tiny thing shouldn’t make me feel so redeemed. But it’s the everyday stuff that I struggle with the most.

One of my favorite experiences in French was a very un-everyday conversation.  While we sat in a cafe drinking our espressos, I had an hour long philosophical conversation with another professor. Together we treaded carefully through my limited French grammar and vocab. We forged our way through the thicket of possible meanings until we’d reached a satisfying conclusion.The root of this conversation had stemmed completely from my own musings, a complex thought process that had had murky beginnings even in English. Even now I couldn’t really relate this conversation to you back in English. It was carved out of French. 

This was the first time in French where I thought, despite my shoddy accent, I’m communicating.  It was also my first time in France that I thought, woohoo, a real grownup conversation. It wasn’t pretentious, it wasn’t flaky, it was enjoyable and worthwhile. I’m wasn’t just conversing, I was relating something of worth to someone else, showing another person who didn’t speak my language a real part of myself. 

Now juxtapose this to what I struggle with on an everyday level. I try to have a simple exchange with some of my peers about what I did last weekend, what I plan to do tomorrow, or what the weather is like, and I become flustered, fumble over sentences and spit out the words as if I were a 12 year old learning French for the first time.  

These frustrating sequences rule the better part of my experiences speaking French in France. But instead of taking them as a discouraging sign of my failing acquisition of French, I’ve realized that they show me where my strengths and weaknesses lie elsewhere in my life. My usage of French reflects my character.

As a personal trait I’m shy. (Or, “reserved” as my parents like to say.)  As much as I’d like to speak and share myself with others, I’m simply not sure how.  I’ve never been very good at small talk. Acquaintances think I’m quiet. I might be considered witty, but this is usually reserved to an inner monologue. It comes out when I feel comfortable with everyone listening. I’ve always been slow to speak because of an unfortunate mix of insecurity, perfectionism, and cowardliness.  

In high school what I regret the most is not speaking enough. I should have spoken up to those who used me, I should have spoken up as the captain of my team, and I should have shared my opinions in class. I can think of at least one English teacher who practically begged me to speak in class every week, but I simply lacked the confidence to share my views with my peers. He resorted to reading from my papers when I was absent. I owe this to cowardliness.

Although I’ve improved in this department, I’m still lacking in others. Even in English I can be pretty embarrassing at ordering food. It took years of training not to become timid or flustered when deciding what to get at a restaurant. I had a truly unpleasant experience at a Quizno’s last summer where I completely froze when it was my turn to order and I couldn’t form sentences. My mind went blank and I didn’t know how to get out of there fast enough. It was like a flashback to my youth.

And ask anyone who’s talked to me on the phone and they’ll tell you I’m the most awkward person when it comes to saying goodbye. I’ve just never learned how to gracefully exit a conversation. I say, “bye!” and hang up the phone before the other person can get an “ok, later!” out. No wonder it would take an embarrassing mix-up to teach me the subtleties in using “à tout à l’heure!” 

And small talk? I’m the worst. I’ve learned how to feign it in English. The trick is to actually find something you care about mentioning and let the other person take it from there. But it takes a while for me to warm up enough to have a genuine conversation in English where I can let my thought process roll out without constant re-editing, never mind in French. And before that can even happen in French, most people have written me off as inept at the language. All I can do is take that as a loss and resolve myself to not be so floundered next time by a simple “ca va?”

My struggles with French are my same struggles in English, only magnified by the glaring question mark of “fluency level” that hangs above every encounter. 

I have such a long way to go, but I’m not discouraged in my French speaking skills, not yet anyway. Perhaps a little unmotivated at times, but there’s hope for me yet. A friend just wrote me, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” So, instead, I’m learning to celebrate the small stuff. 

Just yesterday at Mont-Saint-Michel, I overheard a mother scold her son for climbing everywhere. I knew what she had said straight away, and then I thought about it a second later. Arrête= stop. Grimper = climbing. Constamment = constantly.  And then I was suddenly beaming. I had understood spontaneously spoken French. This had been my New Years Eve resolution:  understand French spoken in the street. And, eureka! I wasn’t worrying about it and I had done it. 

My biggest desire in language is to just be able to roll into a conversation and contribute to it, feeling at ease in the spontaneity of it. But I weigh my words too much in both English and French and I’m insecure with my own self-image. I have been a work in progress for a long time. But I’m not discouraged.

Instead, I’ve realized that I’ve accumulated so many people in my life who excel at this sort of thing that I lack. Sometimes acting as my life line, sometimes acting as my downfall, I’ve learned from them and at times, hid behind them. They are the sort of people who can become best friends with just about anyone. They are also the ones, who for some unknown reason, feel compelled to pursue a friendship with me. These individuals are like guides who have kindly extended their hand to help me navigate the social complexities of life. 

To them, those who are still a part my life or have just passed through, I am extremely grateful to you. As for my time in France, speaking French, I’m thankful to those native speakers who motioned me into their lives and patiently let me try speaking French with them. To my fellow assistants, German-speaking, English-speaking, and Spanish-speaking, I’m grateful for you kindness in extending that first hello, and your patience in working with me as I stumbled through my French and my English.


… Bye!

(told ya I was bad at exiting.)

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