Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Je ne parle pas francais...

No, I don't speak French! It took a week before I could even get over my panic and get that phrase out of my mouth. Generally, when someone unexpectedly turned to me and spoke French, my brain just went into panic mode and shut down. Although I knew perfectly well how to say that I couldn't speak French, I just could not seem to get it out of my mouth. The same thing happened to me when I first moved to Mexico, even though I had studied four years of college Spanish only ten years earlier. I've been studying French fairly regularly since I decided to take this trip, but studying and actually speaking it are two completely different things.

The first time I came to Provence was in 1999. My father had died a couple of years earlier, and my mother wanted to go to France. Some friends of hers had talked her into it, and she wanted me to come along. The trip they were planning was a walking tour of Provence organized by a company in Oregon.

I had never had any real desire to go to France, and I am not a 'tour' kind of person. I'm independent, I can be impatient, and I'm a loner. However, since I knew nothing about France and couldn't speak any French, I couldn't see any way of going without being part of a tour with an organizer who could speak the language. Also, my mother hadn't done anything alone since she'd married at the ripe old age of 17, and she really wanted to go, so I agreed to join her.

By the time we left on that trip, I had done some reading, mostly history, and I was excited to go. I couldn't wait to be in the midst of this land of ancient hilltop villages and vineyards. I was right about not being a 'tour' kind of person, but I fell in love with Provence. By the time we went home, I was determined to learn some French and return on my own.

I did take a French class, and I bought up all kinds of books and cassettes to continue learning. Then I moved to Japan. As you can imagine, my concentration shifted to learning Japanese. I didn't get very far with that before circumstances forced me to return to the US. And not too much later, I moved to Mexico. Studying French and then Japanese, combined with no opportunity to speak Spanish for ten years, meant that I practically had to start over. The same thing happened when someone spoke Spanish to me - my brain went into panic mode and shut down. But I was determined to remember what I'd learned in school, and it did come back pretty quickly.

OK, back to French... One day I walked into the tourist office, and, totally on it's own with no input from my brain, my mouth said, "Parle vous anglais?" I was so surprised at myself that I almost couldn't think of the question I intended to ask! Obviously, all that stuff I had been studying was in my head somewhere, I just had to get brave enough to let it out. I went back home determined to resume my studies.

So, now that I have been here for three weeks, I have figure some stuff out about this language learning problem. There are different levels of language learning.

For me, it is by far the easiest to read in the new language. I find that I don't get stuck on understanding every single word. I just concentrate on picking out the words that I do understand. In most instances, it does not matter about the verb tense, the direct and indirect objects, whether the word is feminine or masculine. Because it is important that I avoid gluten in my food, I check ingredients lists on any packaged foods. I know that "ble" means wheat, but I seem to understand what most of the other ingredients are, too. The cooking directions seems pretty simple, too. I can understand enough of the French in the signs in front of historical sites that I do take the time to read them. I can also understand everything on the bus pass that I bought. Unfortunately, that didn't help me figure out how to tell the driver where I wanted to get off during my first trip. I've got it figured out now.

The next step is to understand spoken French. I find that I can understand quite a bit if it is not spoken directly to me. It seems like I panic and my brain shuts down when there is pressure to understand. Of course, part of that problem is that people tend to speak fast when they assume you understand. When I first met my neighbor downstairs, we were both panting from climbing, so she spoke slower than usual. I was able to understand her and put in a breathless "oui" or "non" in the appropriate places, so I'm not sure that she even realized at first that I don't speak French. Later, I cheated and used a translation program to help me write her a note introducing myself and explaining my poor French. When we met again, she again spoke slowly and we got by just fine.

The final step to learning a language is the speaking part. There is always (for me, at least) a fear of sounding foolish that is a real handicap. I've learned to get over that in Spanish, especially after my neighbor told me that my Spanish is better than most of the people in the neighborhood. A Mexican guy I dated a few times when I first arrived told me that my book-Spanish is great but my street-Spanish isn't so good. By the time I got off my first French bus trip, the one when I couldn't figure out how to tell the driver to stop, I was able to tell him that, while I may have been lost for a while, it was a beautiful trip.

So now three weeks have past. I am trying to be sure that I sit down and study for an hour or so each day. I find myself forming sentences in my mind all the time, although it may be 30 minutes or so after I would have liked to have said it. I am usually surprised to realize that I can do this. I have five more weeks to pick up as much as I can. I am determined to let go of this perfectionism that holds me back.

There are some things that I'll never figure out, though. For example, why is it that my microwave and dishwasher "depart" (leave) but my washer and dryer "marche" (walk) when I want them to start?

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