|The view from the Fourvière on a rainy day with a sad-looking umbrella|
As language students, sometimes it’s hard to force ourselves to actually speak the language we are trying to learn, especially if we know we can always default to English to fill the gaps in our knowledge or confidence. We know that our speech will be rife with mistakes, and we fear embarrassment or imagined judgment. As intimidating as it was, I didn’t want to give myself the option to default to English. I wanted to force myself to function in French.
|You try to speak English, and I'll try to speak French.|
I had taken French classes both in Montréal and at Jewell before I left, so it wasn’t as though I was going into the experience completely unarmed. Still, I soon discovered that being able to role-play placing an order at a fast food restaurant or discussing the plot of a movie in simple vocabulary with patient, slow-speaking teachers is dramatically different than communication in the real world. But I was there, in France. In Lyon. The program had a coordinator at our disposition who spoke English, but other than that, I was on my own. I had no choice: I had work with what little I had.
At first, I relied on a pidgin language of gestures and signs and messages scribbled on post-it notes whenever my pronunciation proved to be indecipherable to a native ear. I felt kind of ridiculous, but it worked. I did what I needed to do. Oh my God, I thought, I just opened a back account in French.
Oh my God, I just set up a phone plan in French.
Oh my God, I just signed a lease. In French.
I was functioning.
|The view from my apartment in Lyon after the first snow of the year|
Even before my classes started, I could feel myself improving with each passing week. I picked up new vocabulary. My ear acclimated to the accent. I began to parse the words and sentences that I was hearing in my head.
Oh my God, I just had a doctor’s appointment in French.
Oh my God, I just talked my way into a club in French.
Over time, it got easier still, until slow and steady speech was enough to make myself understood.
Oh my God, I just argued with a taxi driver in French.
Oh my God, I just went out on a date in French.
|The courtyard of my apartment at sunrise|
I had arrived in France terrified of being a burden on everyone I tried to talk to; I had imagined them becoming frustrated with me for not learning their language faster, or easier, or better than I did. My fears were totally unfounded. As long as people understand what you’re trying to communicate, that’s all that matters.
It would take many more years of that type of immersion if I wanted to even come close to speaking with real fluency, but all in all, the experience was far less painful than I thought it would be. No, it was rewarding! It was worth every single awkward moment, it was worth all the mental exhaustion. Being able to communicate in French as well as I did gave me the greatest sense of accomplishment I’ve ever felt in my life, and I’ve done a lot of things. It was a challenge – a surmountable challenge – but I cannot imagine how I would have done it without the foundation I got from Jewell.
|Le Parc de la Tête d'Or on a sunny day|