Everyone says the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself, and after a year and a half of pretty intensive immersion, I am still a loooong way from fluency.
But my French is finally starting to evolve from random il pronounced words into a real mode of communication.
Languages do not come easily to me and the fact that I never properly learned English grammar doesn’t do me any favors when trying to master the many French tenses. But i’ve learned to appreciate small triumphs and accept my progress even if its moving at a snails pace.
I have also learned that even though you can’t rush learning a language, there are a few tricks:
1. Think logically.
At first, I dreaded any situation where someone might have the opportunity to speak to me in French. I feared that inevitable moment when some perfectly nice person would come up to me in a store or on the street, open their mouth and say a whole bunch of words that i didn’t understand.
Then when my dopey blank face gave away the fact that I didn’t understand, the person talking to me would make an even more confused face, because most of the time, they were asking something so simple and so situation specific only a total idiot would be baffled by it.
Now that I can understand some of what is going on around me, a bit of the mystery is gone, and I realize that a lot of the time, people are usually saying exactly what you’d expect them to be saying:
That kid taking to his mom in the grocery store? He’s asking for candy. The person in the laundry mat? They are asking you where to buy detergent. The hurried woman who stops you outside the bank? She wants to know what time it is. And the weird old guy sitting alone at the table next to you at the brasserie, well he’s hitting on you.
So even if you aren’t 100% sure on the specifics, you most likely do have a pretty good handle on what’s going on, and if you kind of fill in the holes with what you’d imagine someone saying in any normal situation, you won’t be too far off.
Of course thinking logically doesn’t always work. Because even if the exchange is something as mundane as walking into a shop and having the sales person come up to you and say a few brief words that can only logically be “can I help you”, if you don’t understand those words, it’s really unsettling.
And I don’t know about you but when when I feel unsettled its hard to react in a normal way. I usually end up just standing there saying nothing and starting to sweat.
Although the idea is beyond simple, the sales person could be saying “can I help you” to which the answer would be “no, I’m just looking thanks”
But they could also be saying “let me know if i can help you” to which the answer would be “okay, thank you”
If you answer “yes” to “can I help you” then you are stuck with more awkward miscommunication.
And if you answer “no” to “let me know if I can help you” well then you are just being rude.
2. Use your hands.
I think when people first learn a language, the mime-to-word ratio is around five to one and as you learn more words, ideally you start to rely less on acting out what you are trying to say.
But I have become so dependant on my hands to help me communicate, I can’t shake the habit.
Whenever the subject of driving comes up for example, its like I’m immediately transported into a game of charades. As soon as the words “car” or “drive” come out of my mouth, my hands involuntarily shoot up to ten and two on the steering wheel.
Similarly whenever I’m trying to explain that I heard something, I find myself pointing to my ear.
While the gestures are useful in getting my point across when my pronunciation fails, It’s not a winning strategy when fitting in is the goal.
It’s one thing when I’m in French class, to use a little miming to help me out when presenting the week’s current events, but quite another when trying to fit in with French friends around the dinner table.
At this point though, I’ll take what I can get. And even if that means awkward blank stares, and childish hand gestures, I am just happy to be understood.