I’ve already been home almost six weeks now. I’ve barely had a chance to catch my breath since I plunged immediately into classes upon my return, but now I have a few minutes to reflect on the experience and wrap it all up.
When I think about what I learned from this, the main thing that comes to mind is so obvious that no one would likely ever debate it, yet its something you don’t really KNOW until you experience it. And that is this: A language cannot be divorced from its culture. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A language isn’t just a set of words you string together to make a sentence in a grammatically correct way. If you only learn a language by cold hard words and grammar, then its nothing more than a mathematical formula: Subject + Verb + (adj) Object = Complete Sentence. And few people in any language are going to confine their communication to sentences like “I saw the big dog”.
I hear people say that they love the French language, but the French people not so much. Well I’ll argue that one doesn’t exist without the other. If you love this language, then you are signing on with the people who speak it. They can be maddening, intractable, even arrogant people who are VERY proud of their language and don’t graciously excuse any corruption of it. (Americans, on the other hand, are much more blasé about whether non-native speakers can speak English perfectly. As long as we can understand what they’re trying to say, we’re pretty cool with that. Mostly we’re just relieved that they can speak to us in our language because we don’t speak fluent French, Spanish, German, Chinese, what-have-you.)
Yes, the French can be maddening when they seem to be deliberately obtuse. More than once I found myself repeating a simple word or phrase multiple times while une Française (it was almost always a woman) pretended not to understand me.
“Nous voudrions deux vins chauds, s’il vous plaît” I told a server. This particular specialty of the house was printed on a chalkboard not four feet from where we sat.
“Deux vins chauds“.
“Desolée, je comprends pas,” she said, regretfully shaking her head. (Seriously?)
“Deux. Vins. Chauds.” For illustration I pantomimed drinking a glass of wine after holding up two fingers.
“Vous voulez deux vins chauds?”
“OUI ! ” (isn’t that what I said???)
On the other hand if you do get it right, they will tell you that too, evidently surprised that you have actually managed speak a few semi-intelligible words in their language. After completing my transaction, a ticket seller at the Musée D’Orsay station in Paris asked me if I was an American and when I answered in the affirmative he expressed admiration that I could understand him and speak a little French. “Vous parlez bien le français” he said approvingly. That was pretty much the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, as far as I was concerned.
In learning this language, you are learning who the people are (in this case, referring to the French, in particular, among La Francophonie.) There are words and phrases that I now understand which wouldn’t make any sense without having heard them in their native context. No textbook can convey the exact meaning, the expression – the Gallic shrug – that accompanies these colloquialisms. Seriously, you just have to be there.
There are still things I don’t understand – cultural subtleties I can’t quite grasp. I don’t really understand vouvoiement and tutoiement, for example, and even several months in France didn’t completely clear up that mystery for me. Yes, I know what the textbooks say, but no, its not intuitive to a foreigner. (Its not nearly as clear-cut as the textbooks make out, since I can come up with about a dozen “what-ifs?” right off the top of my head.)
But the bottom line is that going abroad is a must if you want to have a basic command of a language. Several months, at least in my case, isn’t enough to become fluent, but it is enough to take you from a textbook or classroom level of comprehension to an actual working level. There is no substitute for hearing it day in and day out: having classes in French with no English whatsoever; sitting on the bus listening to people talk; being asked questions on the street and having to answer on the fly (no time to think about how to make it grammatically correct – just open your mouth and speak!); conducting transactions in stores, banks, train stations, hotels; and even speaking on the phone (difficult, but I managed to pull it off a few times.)
And that’s about it. I already miss France because there was still so much to see and not enough time to explore all of it. But it was a great four months and a not-to-be-missed experience for anyone who really wants to learn the language.