The rule I had set for myself in France was to spend no more than one cumulative hour speaking or being spoken to in English during the first eight days before my English-speaking friend arrived for the final weekend. I ended up playing a little fast and loose with that rule but on the balance I would say I spent 90% of my time living and breathing French.
It was the first time since I learned to talk that I relied upon a language other than English for longer than a few hours. I hadn’t anticipated how emotional it would be. In fact, it felt sort of like going through the seven stages of grief, sped up:
Shock: On the first day my sleep-deprived mind went blank and I was basically mute.
Denial: On the second day I literally stamped my feet and had a temper tantrum (though at least it was in French!).
Bargaining: On the third day I tried to convince Philippe to speak to me in English, even if I wasn’t allowed to speak it myself. Thankfully he resisted my whining.
Guilt: On the fourth day I started missing my three year-old niece and by the fifth day it had gotten so bad that I had no choice but to Skype with her, which of course I had to do in English.
Anger: On the sixth day I used my French to mock the French language and all of its busted rules. Why on earth would a civilized people so unnecessarily complicate things by assigning genders to objects? WHY??? And why would anyone with any mathematical logic whatsoever call the number “98” four-twenty-ten-eight instead of ninety-eight?
Depression: On the seventh day I had to think through something important in English. I found myself braindead and unable to recall the simplest words. I felt like I had somehow lost my native language in the space of a week, yet come nowhere close to gaining a new one.
Acceptance / Hope: On the eighth day I scrolled through my list of all the new words I had learned (more than 200!) and realized that for the first time in the year since I revived my French practice, I could actually feel the progress. When you’re learning incrementally, inconsistently, and non-contextually, progress is only visible from a distance of months or even years. But with just one week of immersion, I noticeably reduced the amount of translation I did in my head, I started talking more quickly, and I felt more capable of conveying complex and abstract thoughts. I began to notice that French people could understand me (albeit with difficulty) and I could understand them (when their speaking speed didn’t panic me). Crazy! Miraculous! Proficiency no longer felt like an impossible dream, and it seemed likely that if I just keep at this, I will one day be a true French speaker.
So I think I got over some sort of hump in France. Not the final hump (fluency) or even the close-to-final hump (proficiency), but a hump nevertheless. It’s the same sort of hump I had to get over to learn clarinet, video editing, and driving a car. The one I never think I am anywhere near to cresting until the moment after I get to the other side, as if by magic. Looking back, it feels like everything has changed overnight and I finally have an innate understanding – if not yet a mastery – of the thing that felt so foreign and frustrating to me the day before.
I’ve heard this moment referred to as the “epiphany point,” which seems fitting for such a momentous occasion… one that took 22 years from my first French class to get to! I can only hope getting over the next hump doesn’t take quite so long.
(photo: Adam Foster)
5 thoughts on “French is a many-humped camel”
Oh my god!Your account is hilarious(I don’t know if I should be laughing about your predicament or not). 😉
The thing is,I have been meaning to learn french for quite sometime,but I just haven’t got to it.But the way it’s spoken is fascinating, don’t you think? 😀
Thank you! And yes, agreed, it’s a fascinating language especially when you start to see how French has impacted English.
Well,I plan to learn french as soon as possible. 🙂
Feeling progress is one of the best feelings in the world. It doesn’t come fast or easy, but it’s wonderful. Congratulations!
Thank you!! It’s an addictive feeling, helps to keep me motivated.