A Fluency Lesson

I think that it’s high-time we talk about the f-word: fluency. Everyone has different goals and expectations for their language competency when studying in a non-English-speaking country, but I always tried to keep mine realistic. My general hope was to become more comfortable and dexterous in French, particularly when in conversation, but I knew from the get-go that if I set my sights on becoming fluent, my efforts just wouldn’t cut the mustard. Being fluent is a label that, to me, connotes a high level of mastery – it’s for those people who know without batting an eye, for example, how to say “cut the mustard” (or its equivalent idiom) and for the ones who still control their personality in their second language because they’re never limited by an inability to express themselves as desired. French Katie, on the other hand, is more polite, more deferential, and relies more on her looks to get what she wants – just kidding! But it is true that I have mastered the quizzical facial expression, so I am far from my own conception of “fluent.”

In fact, it seemed to me throughout my first two months in Paris that all I was really learning was just how easy it is to survive and explore only knowing English: shopkeepers would just switch to English as soon as they detected my poor accent or if I accidentally swapped a “la” for a “le”, plenty of labels in the grocery stores seemed to be bilingual, and I was always tempted by museum maps with a little American or British flag in the top right corner. Okay, Katie, I hear you all reason, that makes sense if you’re just going on a little vacation, but you’re living and studying IN FRENCH! Surely it’s affected your language in a huge way…

Honestly, if you had made that hypothetical comment to me a few weeks ago, I might’ve nodded along while internally feeling like a lazy failure. See, many typical French university classes consist of the professor lecturing and the students writing down what they hear verbatim. There are very few questions and the chances of a class discussion occurring are about as slim as the chance that Joan Rivers’ face has never seen a plastic surgeon. So you can imagine how these classes have done wonders for my comprehension skills, but not so much for my oral expression.

The other way for students to really stretch themselves in their foreign language is to break out of their comfort zones and find ways to make native friends. As I’ve previously indicated, this is somewhat more difficult to accomplish in Paris, but it’s totally attainable for the supremely motivated. In my case, however, I clung to my CUPA friends, choosing instead to bond with them over all our common triumphs and tribulations as a means of securing my sanity during the first few months of my stay. Of course, as I learned in my linguistics class last spring on second language learning, there was always another highly effective option when it comes to quickly improving your French: acquire a French boyfriend. (For my odds of this option occurring, please refer to my blip about Ms. Rivers.)

Early on in my semester, a friend who had attended my program last year advised me that there would probably come a day when all of my French just suddenly clicked, but until that moment she warned that I might not really notice much improvement in my ability. While I was beginning to doubt whether such a semi-epiphany was in the cards for me, something did click when my two-week spring break came to an end and I returned to France after being bombarded with Italian and Spanish. As I finally arrived back in Paris and lugged my carry-on down the stairs to the metro, I felt the oddest sense of relief and comfort at being able to understand a French mother scolding her child for fooling around too close to the tracks. When the train doors opened and I quickly nabbed a seat with easy access to the exit, bleary-eyed and exhausted, I couldn’t help but smile at the idea that, should an older person enter the train looking for a seat, I would be able to offer my own without having to rely on a grand and awkward gesture; I could instead opt for a quick and subtle question. And once I saw my host mother the next day, the French just started pouring out of me with the same enthusiasm and determination as a kid obsessed with his favorite present on Christmas morning. This is unreal, I told myself. Maybe I have actually improved a lot more than I expected.

Several weeks later, I’m not quite so gung-ho about my French, much like how that same kid at Christmas slowly but surely begins to abandon the toy he recently played with for hours on end and begins to favor another pastime. But with a bit of perspective, I also know that these past four and a half months have done wonders for my understanding of the French culture, and that has, in turn, affected my linguistic savvy. Certain phrases that I never came across in an academic context have become part of my every-day vocabulary, and even better, I know that in any scenario, even if it’s not a shining example of grammatical perfection, I am capable of expressing my needs and wishes, and usually without having to conjure them up in English and then translate them in my head.

But back in the practical (read: job-seeking) world, how do I translate my skill level in a way that people can appreciate? I already admitted that I’d be squeamish about putting “Fluent French” at the bottom of a resume, but clearly “Conversational French” doesn’t quite illustrate the range of experiences I’ve encountered. Maybe while I see-saw between the two standard options I should start a campaign for a third: “Successful Ex-pat.” It’s got a nice, Hemmingway-esque ring to it, no?

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5 Responses to A Fluency Lesson

  1. Marie-Laure Hoffmann says:

    Forget “le” and “la”… do what Sedari did…only use “les”!!!

    On the Importance on Learning the Gender of French Nouns:
    From “Make That a Double” in Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

    My confidence hit a new low when my friend Adeline told me that French children often make mistakes, but never with the sex of their nouns. “It’s just something we grow up with,” she said. “We hear the gender once, and then think of it as part of the word. There’s nothing to it.”
    It’s a pretty grim world when I can’t even feel superior to a toddler. Tired of embarrassing myself in front of two-year-olds, I’ve started referring to everything in the plural, which can get expensive but has solved a lot of my problems. In saying a melon, you need to use the masculine article. In saying the melons, you use the plural article, which does not reflect gender and is the same for both the masculine and the feminine. Ask for two or ten or three hundred melons, and the number lets you off the hook by replacing the article altogether. A masculine kilo of feminine tomatoes presents a sexual problem easily solved by asking for two kilos of tomatoes. I’ve started using the plural while shopping, and Hugh has started using it in our cramped kitchen, where he stands huddled in the corner, shouting, “What do we need with four pounds of tomatoes?”
    I answer that I’m sure we can use them for something. The only hard part is finding someplace to put them. They won’t fit in the refrigerator, as I filled the last remaining shelf with the two chickens I bought from the butcher the night before, forgetting that we were still working our way through a pair of pork roasts the size of Duraflame logs. “We could put them next to the radios,” I say, “or grind them for sauce in one of the blenders. Don’t get so mad. Having four pounds of tomatoes is better than having no tomatoes at all, isn’t it?”
    Hugh tells me that the market is off-limits until my French improves. He’s pretty steamed, but I think he’ll get over it when he sees the CD players I got him for his birthday.

    “Madame H”

  2. Matt L says:

    “But with a bit of perspective…”

    You know, in the movie Ratatouille, the food critic Anton Ego asked for a bit of perspective in the final climactic sequence where Remy the rat and Linguini the human served him some ratatouille.

    …ironically a movie set in Paris.

    So you pretty much work for Pixar.

  3. Kathryn Cronen says:

    Madame Hoffmann, I can’t believe you brought this up because I just finished that book a month ago – and it’s so true!! Using only plurals has become a sneaky but useful trick when I remember to pull it out of my hat.
    Thanks so much for providing the excerpt; I highly recommend David Sedaris to anyone looking for a laugh!

  4. Uncle Phil says:

    Très bon mon cher !

    Oncle Pip

  5. Lisa Cronen says:

    Dear Katie,

    I think you are being too hard on yourself. I think it may be because you know your time in Paris is coming to an end.
    Remember you can always go back. Maybe not soon, but your once-in-a-lifetime trip can happen twice (or three times) it’s all up to you.

    With Love,
    aunt lisa

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