Last night I went out for drinks with three native French speakers, including one Parisian. (This is significant because Parisians speak three times as quickly and enunciate half as much as Senegalese.) We spent three hours gabbing away, during which my fairly infrequent mis-comprehensions were quickly smoothed over and my more frequent mispronunciations never stopped the conversation short. As is my wont when my French is going well, I had a moment of exiting my body and looking down at myself from above with a nearly overwhelming sense of pride and astonishment. I felt like I had crossed over some great divide and earned my stripes as an official French speaker, though I couldn’t tell you where or when the transition happened.
The ironic thing is that the precise moment I wandered off into the clouds to pat myself on the back was the same one in which the person I was talking to abruptly switched gears to ask whether I could understand him. He probably noticed my eyes looking through him into the middle distance of fantasyland. I assured him that yes, I had understood everything, but in fact, you can’t understand what you haven’t actually listened to.
In English, when I find my way back to a conversation after becoming distracted, I can do a sort of rewind to the last thing I missed, because my ear processed the words even if my mind didn’t. I operate sort of like my sound recorder, which is capable of capturing audio starting 2 seconds before I hit the record button. (I have NO IDEA how this works.) But in French, if I miss something, I can’t get it back, because it was never there to begin with. The sounds flittered through my subconsciousness, yes, but my brain never bothered turning them into words.
So, in that respect, I’m still stunted in my French. But who cares, because when I actually pay attention to what people are saying, I can understand the words coming out of their mouths. I can understand words which were once meaningless gobbledygook.
It’s pure and utter magic. (Magic that took a lot of work.)
[Photo: Kurt Bauschardt]