Julia Hamilton

Fluent, Mostly

Julia Hamilton
Fluent, Mostly

Well hello friends from Paris! I’ve had both adventures and regular intestinal distress--familiar guests on this season of Travelling with Julia. So far I’ve blissfully ignored all responsibilities to just have fun, but as I’ll actually be starting my job soon, they’re coming for me. Naturally, and unfortunately, they all depend on my ability to communicate.

When it comes to my level of French, I’d call it adequate. I've been in French classes since middle school, and if English-speaking people at home ask me if I’m fluent, I say yes, mostly. I can keep up a conversation, with a fair amount of sorry, what? happening on both sides, but it's enough for me to take care of menial tasks and go about my day without too much trouble. The highest compliment I can receive is if a French person doesn’t realize where I was born the moment I open my mouth. They certainly know I’m foreign, but if they just ask generally where I’m from or say oh, you’re American? if it comes up, there's my small victory for the day. However, when a French stranger approaches me and speaks in English immediately, that’s a whole afternoon lost. This happened to me today, actually. I didn’t answer. The whistling release of my pride deflating was response enough.

The nice thing about uncomfortable moments with strangers, though, is that you can walk away semi-assured that you may never see that person again. From mild discomfort to outright humiliation--say, when I went to a restaurant alone, shifted my chair, bumped the table behind me, and sent four wine glasses crashing to the floor--the sting fades, and even if those people do see you again, they probably didn’t get a good enough look at your face to really recognize your shame. What’s a little tougher is when you’re trying to make a good impression on people that do matter and will in fact be seeing you again. When, Heaven forbid, you like these people, you try harder not to look like a complete ass.

Thankfully, I can’t think of anything I’ve done on par with shattering a table full of glassware on my attempts to make friends or meet their families, but my language limitations do bring a unique brand of discomfort to our conversations. If it’s only a single patient listener plus me, it’s not so bad--that is, as long as I can get over myself and just barrel through the mistakes. Just as often, though, I get stuck in my own head, revise each sentence as I speak it, and agonize over my accent to the extent that whatever I was trying to say gets lost. Then I clam up. It's not a good look.

When the conversation grows to three or more people, my social skills leap into survival mode. With each new conversant, my brain chucks another fight-or-flight reflex my way. While I do manage not to go sprinting out of the bar every time I have to kiss someone new on the cheeks, any words I may have offered have already hightailed it out of there, barring bonjour. Even then I kick myself if it’s the evening, and I realize I should have said bonsoir. However, if I've had enough beer to quell my constant internal proofreading, I start to sift through the topics of conversation, panning for some nugget that my limited vocabulary can exploit. When I find one, it’s do or die, because if I wait too long to translate everything, the subject will get buried, but if I throw out my first words before I know where I’m going, the conversation has to hold its breath while I fumble to a conclusion, having thoroughly upset its established rhythm. The trick is to stick to short sentences or one-word jokes. Sharing a complicated opinion? Out of the question. Even anecdotes are a trap. If I do succeed in throwing in a succinct comment and/or joke related to the subject at hand, measurable by the absence of a heavy pause and furrowed brows after I’m done speaking, I reward myself by sitting back in my chair and letting a couple topics pass me by before I come back, pawing through words like a dog digging for a bone.

It should be noted that those with whom I’ve been speaking are all nice and patient people, so they’ve never been the ones to make me feel ashamed of how I speak. They’re wonderfully encouraging. The shaming all comes from my end, and I’m a real pro at it. Those times that I do jump into a story or complex thought with no way out, I watch their faces as they follow along, and I can tell by their focus and fixed smiles that my god they’re rooting for me, and here I am just letting them down. The more that thought occupies my brain, the more every French r clogs up my throat like I’m speaking through a mouthful of molasses, and I agonize over--wait--is pinte a masculine or feminine noun?

There’s no doubt that I’ll get better at this the longer I’m in France, and I’m sure it feels especially noticeable right now after a summer seldomly speaking anything but English. In an observation that will surprise nobody, I tend to overthink things. I convince myself that my "problems," such as this one, are a bigger deal than they actually are. In any case, one positive effect of these language difficulties is that they give me a certain degree of compassion for those who struggle with English, especially if they’re stuck in my country where many of us don’t learn other languages. I don’t say that to crucify Americans who don’t speak a second language, although I would encourage giving it a try if you can, but I do think we as a people could be more understanding. It’s hard to prove one’s depth as a person when working with a fraction of the vocabulary everybody else has, and it takes years of frustration to get to that level. Meanwhile, you sort of sit there and try to take part in conversation through eye contact, wry smiles, and awkwardly-phrased observations, all the while screaming internally I’m an interesting person! I experience things! I'm educated! I have nuanced opinions! Damn it all!

Anyway. Root for non-native English speakers the way people here have been rooting for me. They may even deal with real problems. It’s rough out there, y'all.

Thanks everyone,