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)