Trying to “Do French,” Even When It’s Uncomfortable

Before we left Ireland, we tried to teach our todller Theo a few important French phrases:

  • Bonjour!
  • Au revoir!
  • Merci!
  • Un pain au chocolat s’il vous plait!

“Not yet,” he’d very consistently reply with a shake of his head.

Our first few days in France were the same. We’d encourage him to practice either with us or with the actual French people who were saying bonjour to him while simultaneously tussling his hair. And he’d refuse.

On day three in France, Theo informed us that he wanted to “do French” and has been tentatively practicing ever since. This has mostly consisted of bonjouring at random people on the street from the safety of his stroller. When confronted with a bonjour from another person, though, Theo still freezes up and becomes silent.

So, Theo is two and gets a little leeway from me at least, since he is still figuring out the English language. I am in my thirties, and this is my third time in France. Since we’ll be here for more than two months, I’m really trying to “do French.”

I practiced quite a bit (mostly through Duolingo) before leaving, and felt like my reading French skills improved significantly, while my listening and speaking skills remained fairly abysmal. Now that I’m surrounded by French speakers, here is what I’ve been trying:

  • If I’m about to have conversation that I’m pretty sure will be over my vocabulary level, I’ll start by telling the person that I speak a little French instead of telling the person that I don’t speak French. Then, I’ll continue the conversation in French.
  • Even if most of the conversation eventually switches over to English, I try to continue using the French words that I do know.
  • When I’m out in the world and am unable to conjure a particular phrase, I write down the English version for my reference, so that I can look up the French version later when I’m back at my computer.
  • And probably the most important one: I don’t allow myself to avoid interactions in French, even when they make me feel uncomfortable. For example, I could minimize displaying the limitations of my French skills by buying bread, cheese, and such from anonymous self serve aisles at the grocery store. However, obtaining (and then eating) tasty, specialized food is a key source of my happiness wherever I am, and especially in France. This sort of food often lives behind counters and requires interactions with people. So, I interact.

Using the techniques above, I actually like it better when the person I’m speaking with doesn’t speak much English, because then I’m forced to use a combination of my limited French and my more expansive pantomiming skills to get by.  Sometimes, I realize that I actually know far more than I expected, like at the cheese and dairy counter yesterday, when I was able to successfully understand which blue cheeses were strong and how much salt each type of butter contained.

My non-English language skills are very much a work in progress; like so many Americans, I learned a small amount of another language in school and then promptly forgot most of it.

Because of this, speaking another language is often uncomfortable and even hard on my ego, when I stumble. (And I stumble at lot.) However, I’m trying, trying, trying to get used to sitting through (and speaking through) that type of discomfort. Because in the end, I’d rather risk looking silly than risk not trying.