Based in Birmingham, Alabama, forgotten regrets is a blog by suzanne, a nutrition scientist with a passion for food across the world. this blog chronicles her experience in bordeaux france with an exciting opportunity from the fulbright commission.

Communicating in French

Although bank accounts and telephone numbers are tasks to make my daily life in France a bit easier, they are certainly not the reason I came to Bordeaux.  As I was rereading some of my earlier posts, I realized I haven’t even described why I wanted to be here and what I hope to do.  Sure, I talked about my research and the Fulbright process but that is really the how and not the why.  I am really here to develop my fluency in French and observe and take in a different way of life.  Observing the culture is of course fun and exciting.  Acclimating to a new way of life has been three steps forward and two steps back which is generally forward progress. But developing fluency in French has proven to be more stressful than I thought.

I thought I knew how it felt to be stressed about speaking in a foreign language.  I studied French for 8 years (4 in high school and 4 in college) and have used it to visit France on 7 separate occasions in the past 20 years.  When on vacation here, I used my French to order food, ask where the bathroom was, check into hotels and buy tickets to tourist attractions.  I have never lived among the French which necessitates communicating about slightly important subjects in French on a daily basis. Of course there were times I got a little nervous when looking at a menu.  God forbid I should order a food I didn’t know (my first few trips I stuck to sandwiches and chicken just to be certain)!  But having to actually work with local schools to enroll a 10 year old in CM2 (equivalent of 4th grade) and opening a bank account really provided a level of stress I wasn’t anticipating.

Just to provide the reader with a bit of background, I should also confess that I am a bit of a perfectionist.  When it comes to an achilles heel, my goal to be perfect is definitely mine.  I didn’t really understand how much of an issue it was to constantly want to be perfect until long after I received my Bachelor’s degree.  When I finally did realize the damage this unachievable desire was doing to my psyche, it was already a fully integrated part of my being.  So now I have to work daily to quiet it.  How does that have anything to do with language?  When attempting to speak French as a tourist, I didn’t just want to say the word, I wanted to say it properly.  I wanted to sound French.  At night I would dream about people not recognizing that I even had an accent so I could blend in perfectly.

My colleague at ISEPD said the most profound thing to me this summer when I told her I was hoping to gain confidence in using my French.  She said “You Americans never have to communicate in a language other than your own so you don’t know the feeling of trying to say something and failing”.  I thought about the weight of her words and what they meant to me.  I thought about non-English speakers in the past who have communicated with me.  When someone says “I need to go to the store yesterday”, I can automatically reason he or she really means either I need to go to day or I needed to go yesterday.  I can use hand motions to help that person get the root of the communication to be sure I give the proper response. I realized French speakers would probably be willing to do this for me too. 

Even before I arrived, I was much more communicating in writing than speaking.  I also could understand what other people said much easier than I could say back what I wanted to say in French.  Another thing I have always found difficult is translating word for word what someone says to me.  I can give my husband and son the jist of the communication by often can not provide a word for word translation.  Truth is I often do that in English too.  I will retell a story and my husband will say “that is not what she said”.  So I will probably not ever be a word for word translator.  But I absolutely need to work on my speaking skills.

Luckily I have plenty of opportunity to do that.  My colleagues at ISPED are willing to speak to me in French even though their English is so much better than my French.  I am so grateful to their constant support.  I have also found that most vendors here speak to me in French.  I thought it was because they didn’t know English but on a couple of occasions there have been individuals who did not speak English to me but did speak English to my son or husband.  Could it be that my French is decent enough that they don’t mind my occasional blunders? 

Today I was attempting to open a bank account (yet again, 4 times a charm?) and was communicating quite smoothly for about 4 minutes with the banker until we had to say numbers.  I know my numbers but I completely stumbled over my telephone number.  He smiled and said, “you can use English if you want but I see you are trying to use French so use whichever you prefer”.  I swear it was the nicest language compliment I have had.  He was actually giving me permission to try and fail.  I, of course, continued in French.  I was immediately calmed by his generosity and felt some sense of relief.  It also inspired me to keep practicing my French but also to relax.  I can’t gain 6 months of language in 1 week (but that doesn’t stop me from trying).


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