The Thing about Languages

Imagine walking into a café in Japan and hearing your native language.

Today is my two week anniversary à Paris.

In this time, I’ve learned one valuable lesson: My French is shite.

No, it really is. Even after studying it for 12 years (6 of them compulsory), I was not prepared for comprehending (let alone engaging in) the simplest of daily conversations. Qu’est-ce que fokken? 

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The other day, I went to a birthday party for my Japanese friend, and contrary to my expectations, it was a linguistic nightmare. I spoke French to the Japanese, and Japanese to the French, and at one point, I definitely said, “I lived in Japan for さん ans” [‘さん’ is 3, ‘ans’ is years]. Although I made friends with a lovely Parisian couple who had the patience to entertain my broken French, and even explained a few French jokes that went right over my head (something about brunettes are smarter than prunes?), after a few hours of switching (i.e., butchering) languages, I was ready to go home. And… let’s just say that I had a pounding headache for the entire next day.

Needless to say, I have a newfound respect for people who can dance through multiple languages. (They are officially known as polyglots, but polyglot is an unsexy word for such an enchanting talent.) Here, my housemate, originally from Algeria, speaks 4 languages like it’s no big deal, and my dear friend, a diplomat for the Brazilian embassy in Paris, is adding Japanese and Russian to his already extensive collection. I can’t help but rest my chin in my hands and stare at them in amazement (like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but not as elegantly).

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I love the idea of knowing multiple languages. This is the key to helping travelers and expats feel at home when they come to my café, 帰る Domicile. Imagine walking into a cafe in Japan, and hearing your native language. Yet after 12 years of studying French and 3 years immersed in Japanese, and subsequently fluent in neither, what the hell am I doing wrong?

I listen to French songs, watch French movies, and read French books. Ahh! And then, I realize- In language acquisition, comprehension (i.e., reading and listening) is only half the battle. I need to produce (i.e., speak and write) more; but contrary to what I ingrained in my students, I’m scared of making mistakes. Oh the hypocrisy!

I remember dining out with my family when I was around 12 years old, and upon learning that the server was from Quebec (the French part of Canada-for you outsiders) and after fawning over the “foreign” unicorn as Londoners do (not THOSE Londoners), my mother spouted off something about how much I loved French, and the server reacted accordingly by asking me Survival French 101: Comment ça va? -And. I. Froze. Like a deer in headlights.

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Obviously, confidence in languages doesn’t come easily for me, even 13 years later; but it’s not impossible. So, I’m proposing a list of personal language goals to the public to keep myself accountable.

By the end of my 3-month visa, I will…

  1. Attend a party and hold a conversation entirely in French, and then, another one in Japanese
  2. Confidently engage in daily conversations with local Parisians (e.g., order at a restaurant/cafe/bar, converse with commuters about the mundane, tell cat-callers to piss off, etc.)
  3. Interview a café owner in French
  4. Learn 100 new kanji
  5. Begin learning Survival German 101

By the end of this year, I will…

  1. Confidently converse in French
  2. Comprehend basic German and Italian
  3. Pass the N3 JLPT

I want to and I WILL achieve these goals for the sake of my future patrons because I want them to feel like they’ve returned home when they enter the sanctuary of 帰る Domicile. It will be challenging, but as my Russian CS host once said,

“The easiest way to learn a language is to sit down and learn the damn language.”

頑張ります

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