At the very top of my “life list” is one simple wish…to speak French fluently. I was 24 when I first journeyed to Paris and had the chance to put my language skills to the test. Six years of study in school, French summer camp, courses at the Alliance Française, and many French-speaking friends (and family) had brought me to that moment I had long awaited – the chance to speak French IN France! I was beyond enthusiastic, and spent the entire flight over listening to iPod tutorials to refresh my skills. Upon arriving in Paris, I headed to the nearest café to have my first authentic experience. I was taking such pleasure in listening and observing, that I didn’t even notice the waiter, standing next to my table, with a look of impatience. The moment of truth was upon me, and what did I do? I froze. I was unable to utter a word! I was so embarrassed and disappointed in myself, and determined to ensure that would never happen again.
After getting over my initial terror, I eased into speaking by starting with the basics, and conversing with everyone and anyone who would talk to me. Previously, I had always spoken French in my safe “bubble” in the states, knowing I could always fall back on English. Even though I knew that most French people spoke English, especially in Paris, I had set high standards for myself. I refused to be that American. We all know the one. Not necessarily the fanny pack, baseball cap, shorts wearing tourist (which is definitely not me), but the one that doesn’t try. I wanted to be able to speak the basics with ease, to show mastery of the vocabulary, sentence structure, pronunciation, and even nail the slang. Quite the linguistic challenge, especially right out of the gate.
On my subsequent travels to France, I’ve been more challenged by visiting rural areas where English is not widely spoken. I find that those experiences, while a bit stressful, create an environment where I shine. Knowing there is no safety net forces me to dig deeper into my knowledge and allow my instincts to take over. I take pride in small victories – communicating effectively with a taxi driver who doesn’t speak any English, negotiating a wine tasting at a small cottage in Alsace with a kind, elderly woman, arguing with a hotel manager after a frightful stay in Orléans, and even the rare occasion where I am mistaken for being French! With each trip, I grow more comfortable, and much more confident.
I have a long way to go, but I take comfort in knowing I can communicate effectively, although, not always elegantly. To me, the “language of love” is the most beautiful sound in the world and I float off into a dreamy wonderland every time I hear it. When I say something correctly and it rolls off my tongue, it’s hard to disguise my happiness. Of all the endeavors in my life, I hope to one day achieve my goal of fluency and to prove it by eloquently conversing…en français.