Speaking and learning French has not been a priority for me since I arrived. At the start, I did a quick calculation between time-required and pain likely to be experienced learning the language versus having a nice time and not learning. It clearly showed that not learning and focusing on having fun was the way to go.
Everyone knows French people don’t like it when you get their language wrong. You try, they give you a nasty look and then reply in testy English. So why go through the hassle?
I was not going to get far in 5 months with my pathetic language skills and enough people speak English for me to get by. I’ve communicated with sign language and a smile all over the world. I was sure I could connect even in notoriously grumpy France. And really, how much French do you need to know to get a real bang out of seeing the Eiffel Tower, eating a macaroon or enjoying the pop of a champagne cork?
However, I am getting pressure from all sides to change my mind. First, everyone expects me to want to try. Friends at home all seemed to think that learning the language was one of the top benefits of my trip. “What a great opportunity to learn French,” they said enthusiastically. In France, my landlady, expats I meet, the woman at the cheese counter, all think they are being encouraging when they ask, “How’s your French coming along?”
The second pressure is me. My default mode is to talk to anyone, about anything, at anytime. I am programmed to need to share. However, even small pleasantries with the woman at the bakery or the man at the fruit and vegetable store are denied to me. This is partly because I don’t know the words or phrases. But the reality is that the biggest obstacle is my fear to get it wrong. I am terrified of the face that says, “You stupid American, when you speak it’s like you are spitting on my baguette.”
As a result, despite all genetic programming to the contrary, I’ve effectively taken a vow of silence. A shop assistant will ask, “Can I help you find something?” and I stand there silent, like a deer caught in headlights, with a stupid look on my face. Sometimes I can utter a weak, ‘I don’t understand French’ but most of the time I just shake my head, close my lips tightly and make for the door.
To make matters worse, people want to talk to me. Naturally being a talker, my ridiculous tendency to make eye contact and produce a cheesy smile screams that I am up for a chat. Little old ladies stop me on the street, mothers stop me in the grocery store and even children have come up to say something – what they want to share, I have no idea – and I’ve nothing to say to them. I must look rude, stupid or both.
Finally, and the most compelling pressure to learn French is the fact that French people are actually really nice. Yes, it’s true. At no point since I’ve been here has anyone been mean to me about not speaking French. At no point has anyone been mean to me or expressed displeasure at me attempting to speak French. In fact, the French people I’ve met have gone out of their way to make it easy for me and to make my stay in France better. Sure, people have been initially bemused by my “I don’t speak” routine. However, they usually look at my shoes (the best test for country of origin), figure out the situation and try to help.
This week I started the language tapes. Everyone knows the best plans are flexible.
**You can help me and others learn French! Please post your favorite French phrases.