I tend to beat myself up about things: “Why did you say that?” “You shouldn’t have done that.” “What the hell was that about?”
I’ve made an effort to be more self-forgiving – to treat myself as I would a friend – but when I muddle things up in French, the compulsion to judge myself harshly is pretty strong.
Here are some counterarguments I’ve started making to shut down the self-flagellation.Thought: If I misunderstand someone who is speaking to me in French, it’s because I don’t know French.
Reality: I misunderstand people who are speaking English to me all the time, but it never throws my native language skills into doubt. Sometimes people mumble, sometimes they are unclear, and sometimes they are the ones who don’t speak the language well. Other times I’m not paying enough attention and I miss things, and still other times I catch every word but don’t grasp an unspoken nuance. Sometimes I fail to read between the lines, and sometimes I misinterpret. None of this means I don’t speak English, and the same is true in any language.
Thought: If I’m tongue-tied and can’t manage to “find” my French on any given day, it’s because I don’t speak French.
Reality: There are days when speaking in any language is really hard. Turning my pre-verbalized thoughts into real words feels like the world’s biggest struggle, and my English comes out like molasses. On those occasions, I get annoyed at myself for sure, but I never jump to the conclusion that I don’t speak English, so I shouldn’t do that when it happens in French. (Incidentally, in my case this brain fog has much more to do with gluten intolerance than with language skills. It sometimes also has to do with lack of sleep, moodiness, or stress.)
Thought: When I don’t know a fairly common word in French, it means I don’t know French.
Reality: There are plenty of words I don’t know in English, especially ones I think I know but then try to define out loud – and can’t. Then there are words I’ve defined incorrectly for years, like bemused, which I used almost interchangeably with amused until learning recently that it actually means puzzled. I can’t keep the meaning of nonplussed straight for the life of me. It means to be totally thrown off, but because it features the word non (i.e. not)tied to plus (i.e. up a notch), I always think it means the exact opposite – totally unruffled. A few years ago I listened to a “This American Life” episode in which an interviewee recounts realizing late in life that the word he pronounced as mizeled every time he read it in books was actually the same word as the one that is pronounced miss-led in spoken English – i.e. misled. I was really confused by what he was saying until I realized it was because I had also been making that very same mistake. I always thought of mizeled as something misers did to be deceitful. (It never occurred to me to question why mizel was never used in the present tense.) In short, if I don’t judge my English fluency by my word count, I shouldn’t judge my French by it either.
Thought: When I’m in a French speaking context, sometimes I plan out what I’m going to say ahead of time, especially if I’m in an intimidating and/or public situation. A real French speaker wouldn’t have to do that.
Reality: I plan my words out in English, too. It’s called being aware of your social awkwardness and taking the logical steps to mitigate it.
Thought: If I forget how to conjugate a verb in French, it means I’ve forgotten French.
Reality: I used to be a conjugation wiz in English. I had an almost photographic memory for irregular verb forms. Not anymore. I cannot for the life of me remember the correct past tense forms of lie (as in lie down) and drink. I know that the basic past tense of I lie is I lay but I’m not sure when to use laid (had laid?) and to be honest I can’t even say whether lain is a real word. The difference between drunk and drank also confuses me now, but it never used to. This doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten English – it means I’ve forgotten a few rules of irregular usage that I learned in seventh grade, more than 25 years ago. I first learned French grammar around the same age. There are limits to the human brain’s capacity to remember all the minutiae it’s crammed into itself over nearly four decades of life.
Thought: My level of French when jet lagged, speaking for the first time in months, trying to understand difficult accents, sick, or food poisoned, is my actual, static level of French.
Reality: My level of French is not really quantifiable or qualifiable. It changes all the time. Who fucking cares.
Thought: If I make mistakes when speaking, it means I don’t speak French.
Reality: After 40 years in the United States, my Czech father still makes some of the same mistakes in English that he did when he first got here. Even so, he is always completely comprehensible and in fact, while I intuitively feel the presence of grammatical errors in his speech every now and then, I can’t actually identify what they are without really concentrating on the sentence.
It goes to show that we can be perfectly understood even when speaking a language imperfectly.
[Photo: Mr. Nixter]