Featured image: A winter wonderland—in March—in Strasbourg, a beautiful fairytale city on France’s border with Germany.
Ah, French. The language of poets, the mots justes of Flaubert and Camus, evocative of ballet, theatre, cuisine, art—and, it often feels, the construction of a madman. Though grammar, syntax and conjugation are by this point full-on hobbies of mine (I take Ancient Greek back at Vassar, if that’s any indication), French’s contradictory rules and endless exceptions are a world unto themselves. Getting a proper sentence out is generally so delicate an operation that I feel like one of those plate spinners, running around in my head trying to keep conjugation afloat, pronunciation level, formal vs. informal upright and—of course—the absolute ruse of “fluency” and comfort in my second tongue a-whirling.
I didn’t at all plan on taking up a sport while abroad, but the balancing act that is attempting to speak and understand French gets my heart rate up—and fight-or-flight instinct on alert—on a near-daily basis. Since pretty much all of my interactions with the language have been rife with semi-humiliation, I thought I’d put together a list of just some of the funny, sad or reflective moments I’ve had thus far while trying—emphasis on trying—to speak and understand French.
- I still have shockingly vivid memories of the small episodes from a textbook that I’d watch with my French teacher in high school as part of each lesson, and I can generally pinpoint the context of the vocabulary I learned from the characters’ banal and comfortingly slow-moving lives. I still very much aspire to be like travel agent Benoît Royer. One day.
- I have in the same breath remembered the French words for doormat, bottle opener, knitting and indent and forgotten the words for shoes, laundry, to buy, breakfast and light. Memory works in weird and fascinating ways, but it’s not helpful when you’re struggling to describe something as elemental as light, and panic more and more as you do.
- I still have not mastered rapidly discerning when my host mom is speaking French, English or Korean. Many times I have panicked for a few instances (I guess panic is going to be a common theme) and then realized that it’s not that my French had taken a dramatic backslide or that I shouldn’t have watched that one English video since it wiped all of my non-anglophone memory, but rather that there was no reason for me to understand her rapid-fire Korean phone conversation with her daughters.
- Subjunctive. That is all.
- One of my Sorbonne professors lectures using the passé simple, a form of the past tense only reserved for formal written works and fancy speeches. It’s still jarring hearing it spoken out loud, but I suppose even Art History professors abroad can have a touch of pretension.
- I have lost all senses of humor and have melted into a puddle of stock phrases, deferential merci’s and repeated oh là là’s. Okay, that might be a little dramatic, but I’m still in awe of the many bilingual French- and English-speakers I’ve met here, from my host family to colleagues at my internship to other French students, who can expertly crack a joke in both English and French and have their personalities shine through no matter which one they’re speaking. I’m still basking in one of my French professors at Vassar telling me I have a natural monotone voice that lends itself well to the language, but as for a bubbly, chameleon-like, effervescent French persona, I’m still waiting for that version of myself to kick in. Or maybe he doesn’t exist in English either. Hmm…
- While we’re on existential crises, recently I had a dinner with my host family in which we spoke more than a few words in English to each other for the first time, since their great-niece was visiting and didn’t speak French and we all wanted to converse in a common tongue. I had a flashback to a Russian literature professor at Vassar teaching us about ostranenie, a literary device in which suddenly and often viscerally everything that a character knows—in the case of Anna Karenina, it was the character’s bedroom—feels foreign and unfamiliar. Similarly to that scene, a space that had become so connected to speaking and hearing French in my mind felt utterly discombobulated when I was expected to speak English in it. I found myself speaking awkward, stilted English sentences even though it is my native language and I speak English all the time with friends from my program. I’ve felt parallel feelings when hearing random English on the street in Paris or tons of French in Lisbon. It’s funny how language and environment become so connected, and it’s hard to realize just how intertwined they can be until the norms or expectations are ripped asunder.
More than any physical journey I’ve undertaken while abroad, navigating the terrain of the French language has possibly been my most arduous. I still love French, but my relationship with it is evolving. Some days I feel on top of the world for understanding a pun in a metro ad or recognizing an obscure grammatical construction, but often the next day I’m sunken back down to earth when a waiter tells me something in a noisy café and I’m left dumbstruck. True to character, French—especially spoken French—has remained as elusive as ever, but at least my frustrations with it have become more and more complex (okay, yes, I should remember the word for light, but we all have off days). I look forward to continue wrestling with this beautiful and ridiculous, charming and infuriating language and am saddened to think I won’t be surrounded by it in a month and a half. Eh bien. Au revoir for now!