I’ve talked a bit a before about being bad at Arabic. Well I’m even worse at French:
Growing up, French was what my parents used to speak to each other when they didn’t want me and my sister to understand.
My parents may be your usual semi-French-educated Lebanese trilingual bosses (being good at lots of languages is kind of like the consolation prize for colonialism), but I’ve never delved into French myself much beyond the likes of plié, pirouette, and croissant.
Sure, multilingual childrearing might trendy now (well, especially if you’re white and American and not scrutinized for your English abilities), but I guess it was considered less impressive back then when your kid goes to preschool and starts asking for “ماء.” My parents decided that two languages would be a reasonable compromise, and I picked up about 1.4 of them.
So the majority of my French experience was listening in for the words “les enfants,” so that I could scream “Hey, stop talking about me!”
You might expect that this would have motivated me to actually learn some French. Then again, you might also expect that planning for a month-long program in Paris this year would have motivated me to learn French. Unfortunately, my motivation has failed to live up to the expectations of the hypothetical second person in both cases.
Over winter break, I decided I was going to learn French online and downloaded Duolingo. After I learned how to greet people and ask for various food items, it told me that I was “3% fluent,” which made me feel so good about myself that I decided to take a little break–which grew up into a full-grown break. To rub it in, they still send me emails about how I haven’t done my 15 minute daily practice.
Now, in some respects, I guess I wasn’t as unprepared as I thought. As worried as I was about taking dance classes in French, ballet vocabulary has equipped me with a large supply of action verbs (albeit mis-conjugated and squeezed through the filter of every American dialect you can think of), and the tendency for dance instructors to be physical in their corrections and repeat things a lot comes in handy. As a result, I’ve developed a pretty detailed vocabulary of French anatomical terms and breath-related words in the past few weeks.
But speaking is another story–ask me to say these things out loud and I might end up choking on a guttural “R” until some gracious soul saves me with “Anglais?”
Of course, I never had that much cause for concern, knowing that tons of people speak English here. But what could be more obnoxiously stereotypical than an American tourist going around automatically expecting everyone to speak English to them? I promised myself that I would at least use enough of my memorized phrases to look like I was making some kind of effort.
That plan kind of went out the window as soon as I stepped off the plane. After 12 hour flight and a 2-hour delay that had me missing the group shuttle and trying to figure out how to get to my dorm, my ineffective je voudrais‘s dissolved pretty quickly into “Where can I get a Taxi?!” At least it worked.
“Only English?” the cab driver asked me.
I nodded, aware of how painfully stereotypical I must seem.
His English was pretty minimal, but better than my French, and enough pull our conversation through “Where are you going?” (15th arrondissement) and “Where are you from?” (California?)
He looked at me “But you’re not really, completely American, no? Where you from?”
Ah, I sighed, sounds just like home.