Thoughts on learning French

Right now I am better at French than I was at Italian when I studied abroad in Italy. Today my capabilities in Italian are greatly reduced which is sad. Between the courses at the U of M and Florence, that was a three year period of my life! After I have mastered French, I hope to go back and try to pick Italian up again. It is such a lovely, expressive language; I would hate to let it go. But I know that the way life is, that realistically may never happen.

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Oh Florence! How I miss you!

I have a good mind for memorizing verb conjugations and vocabulary, but my personality makes me a worse language learner than I could be. The people who are best at learning languages are the outgoing ones who don’t give a wit about what other people think. There was a girl on my study abroad program who made an astonishing amount of progress in Italian. Why? Because she was the kind of person who had so much to say that nothing was going to stand in her way of expressing herself to her host family, not even a foreign language. I am naturally a little bit shy and self conscious about making mistakes. That equates to less practice and opportunity to correct those mistakes, which is how one learns to speak fluently. Often times, I would rather say nothing at all than say it improperly. If I am going to struggle to communicate a thought I may decide that it isn’t worth it. I think, ‘It wasn’t super important, what I wanted to say anyway,’ and I will let it go. In group conversations, sometimes I am self-conscious about everyone stopping and listening to what I have to say, and I let the conversation pass over me. Other times I hesitate and don’t jump in fast enough. Then before I know it, the topic of conversation has changed dramatically and it is officially too late to go back.

A common question people ask Cyril and me is, ‘What language do you guys speak to each other?’ Before Christmas, we would reply, ‘Mostly English, but during meals we have a rule where we only speak French.‘ People always seemed a little disappointed. I know that I would have learned French faster if Cyril and I had made an effort to speak mostly French with each other from my start in France, but I wasn’t ready for it. It would have been incredibly exhausting and inconvenient, with headaches and misunderstandings and too much left unsaid.

In Italy I tried so hard to only speak Italian with my host family. Although it helped me progress faster than I would have, I lost the opportunity to have really interesting conversations with them and to get to know them on a deeper level, which I regret a little bit.  Some days in Florence were downright lonely because I was trapped in a bubble of limited vocabulary and unmastered verb tenses.

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My host parents and I. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a lovely experience:)

However, I recently passed a threshold in French.  At a party a few weeks ago, someone asked Cyril and me the typical question, ‘What language do you guys speak to one another?‘ and I thought, ‘wait, why don’t we speak more French to each other? I’m ready for this!’ It was a glorious revelation, like a light bulb. ‘I can do this!’

Anyone learning a language seriously knows that there are the ups and downs. Some days I am confident and elated with my progress and other days I despair that I haven’t learned anything since I got here. However, every day lately I feel more comfortable expressing myself. I am definitely not fluent yet, but it is within reach.

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