It’s All French to Me

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One of my biggest goals for my move to France is to improve my level of French. It’s been going well enough so far, I think, but my adventures with the French language are not without challenge.

I’ll never be able to become a native speaker of French, but that’s OK. The languages we acquire naturally are dictated by being born in a particular place, by growing up hearing and speaking the language, by evolving alongside colloquial speech. I am well aware of how, as a foreigner, I’ve basically dropped myself down in medias res of Parisian culture. Even all my previous French language culture classes in California were not enough to give me the complete contexts that French people speak French in.

Academic French really isn’t like colloquial French at all. I’ve practiced listening to regular French people speak, but to this day I can only pick up certain words or expressions. Of course, when I try to listen in on conversations in the Métro or in cafés, there are a thousand distracting sounds all around me. The sense of the entire dialogue is often lost to me.

Gerard in a very social media-savvy restroom.
I don’t think I’d ever find phrases like “Je Like!” in my formal French textbooks, but here they are plastered on the walls of this very social media-savvy restroom.

This makes it particularly difficult for some of my classes. While my academic French is good enough for me to participate in linguistics classes with French students, I still need a native speaker’s intuition for certain exercises. I’m in a class called Syntax of the Spoken Language, where we analyze the structure of sentences spoken by French people in natural situations. These aren’t rehearsed speeches or literary texts. The data comes straight from the mouth of French speakers, errors and all. Not knowing French as a native speaker, it can be difficult to figure out what people mean, exactly, in the data, especially when idiomatic expressions come along. In fact, the professor made this clear with a joke she shared in class:

Pourquoi les Schtroumpfs nagent-ils souvent au fond de la piscine?” Why do The Smurfs often swim on the floor of the pool?
Parce que ils ne sont pas si bêtes.” Because they’re not that stupid.

I was confused. Swimming on the floor of the pool? How are they not stupid? It took me a while to realize that “au fond” doesn’t just mean “on the floor” but also “essentially”. It’s one of those jokes that just doesn’t make sense translated, but when you actually figure it out, it makes sense.

Once, in class, the French student who sat next to me asked me where I was from, and the moment I said “California,” he started speaking to me in English. It’s times like that when I feel incredibly insecure about my French. The worst was when I got the results of the first exam back. I got an 8. Out of 20. “That’s good!” my classmate said. I thought otherwise. I had so profoundly misunderstood the assignment that I got less than half the points. Even if 8 is a grade French students might find satisfactory, it wasn’t up to my own standards for myself. (In fact, in just a few hours after I publish this blog, I’ll be taking the second exam for this class. I will hopefully be better prepared.)

It’s not all bad, though. When I do end up speaking French without stumbling over my own words, I get (often patronizing) complements from French people about my accent. It’s something I practice often. I wouldn’t want to be fly on the wall in my own apartment. I’d quickly be annoyed at how much I speak nonsense to myself in French, and how often I pronounce the same words over and over again until they sound right.

I think I just have to keep reminding myself that this is normal. I’m a foreign student in a country where I don’t speak the language like the native population. I have to adjust, and I have to keep practicing. I’m reminded of my classmates back home who were on their own exchange programs. These students from China or Saudi Arabia came to America speaking heavily-accented English. But they also brought with them a strength and determination that I need to find in myself now that I’m in their shoes.