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.