Every once in a while, I come home to discover a new person or two at the dinner table and find out that they’ll be staying for a few weeks. So far they have been a Cape Verdean public health Ph.D. candidate doing research in Dakar, a pair of American students at the language center where I took French classes, and a set of Senegalese doctors who were in town for some sort of very short residency.
The Cape Verdean came first. The night he arrived, we all made sparkling conversation around the table, and I was surprisingly chatty in French. I had one of those nights in which I didn’t have to search for the words; they just came to me. I was conjugating (mostly) correctly, my subjects were agreeing with my verbs, I was cracking jokes, and I understood or could infer the meaning of everything that was said.
I was feeling great… until my “host mom” looked at the Cape Verdean guy and complimented him effusively, “You speak French very well.” (Cape Verde’s official language is Portugese.) Her gaze was ever so slightly askew, so that I might have convinced myself she was talking to me instead of to him, had my host sister not noticed the “what about me?” look on my face and piped up, “Ruth speaks French well, too.” My host mom glanced at me and without realizing the blow she was dealing, she conceded, “Ruth’s French is improving.” BURN.
And that’s how it came to pass that I became insanely jealous of a random Cape Verdean dude, and wouldn’t stop ruminating on how annoying it is that he pronounces his qu’s like kweh instead of keh.
With the American students, rising college seniors, I got even more ridiculous. One didn’t speak any French and so I loved her. But the other claimed to be “almost fluent,” and every time she opened her mouth I found myself hoping she’d trip up. Meanwhile, I would pipe up needlessly in dinner table conversation just to prove that I could speak French, too. I had fifteen years on this women and yet despite her being nothing but kind to me, I was threatened and competitive. My four year-old niece behaves more maturely with her one year-old brother.
The saddest part is, if I could only get out of my own way, I could learn a thing or two from this woman – not about French but about life. After a week in the house with her, I realized that her French is “almost fluent,” the way mine is – that is to say, not at all. And yet, her confidence made it easier not only for her to speak but also to not suffer over it the way I do.
I need to chill out with a. the thought that I’m on some sort of French fluency time table and running way behind schedule, and b. the belief that every time I open my mouth to speak French, my value as a human being is on the line. It’s really not that big a deal. No one cares. I speak how I speak, and it’s fine.
The US military often sends service members to the language center for French and cultural training, and in a couple of days, two of their guys are coming for a few weeks’ stay. I am hoping that I will successfully dial down my competitive streak during their time here. (Well, really I’m hoping that they’ll suck at French so that I won’t feel any competition to begin with.)
[Photo: Mr. T HK]