What’s it like communicating in a language you haven’t practiced in 5 years? Imagine that you’re entering some sort of, let’s say, junior carpenter competition. Except it turns out that while the other kids have nice shiny table saws and neat stacks of 2x4s, you’re only allowed to use the contents of a homeless shelter’s dumpster and the only tools you have are, I don’t know, a corkscrew and a blender.
But, whatever, you have to build something, and voilà, the next thing you know, you have a few chair and table-like objects. Made out of cardboard and a clotheshanger, yeah, but they get the job done. ….kind of.
While I eventually got better at understanding written and eventually also spoken French, my own attempts to string together French words in a reasonably comprehensible fashion only got worse as the week wore on. Most people kindly bore with me for a bit but within 24 hours were quick to suggest words to fill the gaps between my stammers. The image of trying to use a half-empty toolbox kept returning to me.
Most commonly used phrases of the trip:
- Peut-etre! (Maybe!)
- …Comme tu veux. (…Whatever you think.)
- C’est quoi le mot…? (Gesticulations, sourire nerveuse, des trucs comme un homme qui est sous l’eau) (What’s the word…? [Wild gestures, nervous grin, motions approximating a man drowing])
- Peu importe. (Never mind.)
- Ouais, c’est ça. (Yeah, that’s it.)
- Voilà. (What he said.)
It’s easier to get into speaking a language when you can’t fall back on your mother tongue. So for the first few days, I tried diligently to eliminate English from my consciousness, scowling when I had to take out a guidebook in English or when an American song came on the radio.
Sometime around day five, I broke down and started peppering my speech more and more with exclamations in English. And I’m glad I did. You start to feel your own mind closing in on itself, weighted by a heap of increasingly useless words. As I burst out to Antoine, “Jesus, it’s like being temporarily retarded.”
Fortunately, Antoine speaks a lot of English now, so thanks to him I was able to move into some kind of linguistic space between the two languages. Which was lovely, because it was less lonely in there. I truthfully felt like when I spoke some English here and there, to emphasize something or explain myself better, everyone understood me, I mean me me and not just my hideously contorted French words, much better. Even the people who didn’t speak English.