Why do I work so hard to never use the language I work so hard to learn?


I am perpetually posing this question to myself.  Over and over I run into a situation where I can easily use my French but somehow fall completely mute.

The other day I took Nelson for his first swim.  He was showing off his gums and being adorable, no surprise.  A woman came to the pool– which was small, and otherwise empty– and of course wanted to tell me how beautiful my baby was (I mean, look at him).  She spoke perfect but accented English.  And I tell myself “Oh, she probably doesn’t speak French.  You don’t really have enough experience to pick out a French Canadian accent.  Don’t bother her with French.”  A few minutes later, out comes her husband.  He also speaks to us, I ask where they are from, forgetting for the moment to be avoidant.   He tells me they are from Montreal and explains that Montreal is in French Canada.  Do I respond in French?  Tell him that I am obsessively plotting trips to Montreal so that my son can be somewhere where it is normal to speak French?  Or even tell him, in English, that I speak exclusively French to my son?  No, I respond in English, and with a blank stare, and they go off to the other side of the pool and speak French to each other, and I stay in the shallow end quietly speaking French to my baby.  But they definitely hear me.  When they help me open the gate to let me get out with the toweled baby and the diaper bag, I don’t even manage a “merci.”  Why?  I posted once about how my fear of speaking French in public was certainly making me look more crazy than if I just spoke my bad French.  This is certainly another one of those situations where my fear of looking silly makes me look so silly that I may as well have been wearing a gorilla suit in the pool.

I can speak French in France.  That is, to anyone who doesn’t speak English.  But to anyone who speaks English I can’t say more than “Oui, un petit peu” (“Yes, just a little bit”) when asked if I speak French.  I think in part I am in awe of the truly bilingual.  The gods among men who have really mastered two languages.  I can speak French to other mere mortals who struggle to speak another language, but not to the bilinguals.  Forget the fact that I could learn so much from someone who could listen and explain my mistakes, or who has struggled their way to real fluency.  Forget that I am in desperate need of French conversation.  Forget the fact that I am working my tail off to learn a language so that I can talk to people– real people, in the real world.  Forget the fact that it is downright bizzarre to be in the same playground as a Frenchwoman after telling her in English that you’ve been studying French for a couple years and speak French to your baby but not to her (another incident that I am not proud of).

I worry that this will be my Achilles heel.  But we can’t let this all be for naught just because I still have some residual middle school emotions.  So here is my challenge to myself:  Next time I find myself in this situation, I want to speak three sentences in French.  Just three.  Just to see what will happen.


11 thoughts on “Why do I work so hard to never use the language I work so hard to learn?

  1. Definitely let that French tongue flow! I understand where you are coming from, but I think you’d really impress yourself if you just made it a goal to pick a day to speak French exclusively for a time period during a day, or a minimum amount of conversation in French daily. Your kid will think its super cool and he will love learning with you!

    • I speak exclusively in French to my little Nelson (though he is only 9 weeks old, and easily impressed), which is why the issue is so confusing to me. I speak French about half of every day, non stop. I THINK in French. I catch myself speaking French to my husband without realizing it until he stares blankly at me. And then when a real live French speaker shows up I go mute. Tragic!

  2. I can totally relate! I’ve done the same thing so many times. Even now living in France!
    I have a friend Christy who comes to Paris for a few months at a time and she is fearless! She makes mistakes, but I feel like she can say so much more than I can just because she goes for it! My French is probably more grammatically correct, with a nearly undetectable accent, but I don’t venture enough to say things I think are difficult! I wish I could be more like my friend Christy. Not focus on the mistakes and just enjoy the language experience!
    How old is your little boy? My youngest is 6 months old.
    Happy to have found your blog!
    Bisous -The Paris Busy Bee
    P.S. Would you be interested in writing a guest post on my blog?

    • Maria,

      I would LOVE to be like your friend Christy. I lived in Ghana for a while and one of my friends there pick up substantial French (from some expat friends of ours who didn’t speak a lot of English) and Twi (the local language, from everyone who would speak a word to him) over a couple months. I was and still am in awe of him. I don’t know how many times I have told myself I will just start saying things in Spanish or Portuguese in my neighborhood where both are spoken a lot, thinking I can pick up some language like Tomas always did. That is also still yet to come to fruition. Some day, maybe.

      I would love to write a post on your blog! I’ll contact you through your blog and we can talk more.


  3. I remember reading in college that if a (bilingual) child meets someone speaking one language, they rarely switch to the other language with that person, even if that person speaks the other language to them. So if you know a person can speak English, you might feel more comfortable speaking English, even though you know French! Humans can be so strange. Good luck with getting out there and speaking more!

    • Interesting! I have seen bilingual kids do that. My little cousin once hid from the guy I was dating at the time, who majored in French, when he started speaking French to her– though she certainly understood him! That makes me feel a little bit better about my resistance! Though it also makes me worry more that maybe there is something deep in my human wiring that I will have to conquer. But I really am trying to try!

  4. Hello! You know what you need? A french speaking friend anywhere in the world with who you could skype! That’s the best way to overcome your fear to speak french!
    Ps: english accent is really cute!
    rePs: I’m french from France (maybe you can tell by my poor grammar!) and had to learn english a few years ago…I totally understand what you’re saying! And to make you feel better, I’m learning swedish…no idea why, maybe because of the cute houses and gardens over there…I won’t be using it, not planning on a trip, i don’t even know anyone from Sweden!…I just want to speak swedish and that’s a good reason to work on it!
    Bonne chance…tu es capable! 😉

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