“You better be fluent by the time you come back,” my mom teased threateningly. Teasingly threatened? Either way there was a bit of a threat in there.
At the time, I laughed nervously at her fake(?) threat. Needless to say, I had my doubts; it’s impossible to become fluent in 4 months! At the time, I thought my French language abilities weren’t bad… for having completed the requirements needed to graduate from my university. But let’s face it: who becomes fluent from that? No one. Some French minors can’t even converse easily with a native speaker. Before leaving, I couldn’t watch a children’s movie without needing to glance down at the subtitles every other word. No, forget every other word. I was missing every other sentence completely.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” I told her… and myself. And then I left for France.
Conversing naturally and without reflection—not perfectly, mind you—is what I call a solid grasp of a language. Being able to eavesdrop on conversations (which, let’s face it, is one of the only reasons why we all want to learn a foreign language, am I right?) without context, understanding instructions or directions whenever you have trouble; that is a solid grasp. When I left, I never expected to be able to converse freely with anyone in anything other than the two languages I’ve had since birth. Those were easy to pick up; I was a baby and babies are language-learning machines. Learning a language as an adult, however, I had yet to know if it was possible. I mean sure, there are people walking around speaking non-maternal languages all the time. That’s because they’re aliens. But for me, a human? Get real.
Four months later, I found myself at a bar with friends from my residence.
Ok, yeah, I didn’t expect you to be impressed by the fact that I have friends—I mean… hopefully that’s not what you find impressive. What surprised even me was that it was a French outing; only one other girl spoke English. All communication was to be in French. First of all, I didn’t sign up for this. I totally thought that there were to be more English speakers when they invited me out to the bars. Second of all… it was like a normal friendship! Minus the part where I got too tired by the end of the night and stopped conjugating anything. But while we were out, it only sometimes felt like a group of girls taking pity on a mute who could sometimes read lips (again, the end of the night).
I’m not saying that I’m good at speaking French; I’m not saying that I speak it flawlessly. I’m just saying that I can converse with people without translating from English; I react naturally to the language. And sometimes, I accidentally use French words even when I’m speaking English; sometimes when recalling a conversation, I don’t remember what language we were using. But I still have a long way to go.
You rarely hear of people studying abroad; it just doesn’t compute. It’s possible to hear about regrets that people had regarding what they didn’t do when they had the chance, but never that they studied/went abroad. Originally, I was torn between two locations: Grenoble and possibly somewhere in Ireland/Scotland. Although studying in Ireland/Scotland would’ve been pretty bomb, I would never EVER regret choosing a place where I improved a foreign language.
Throughout my travels, the importance of a second, third, or even fourth (hell, the sky’s the limit) language has become very evident to me. These people have the upper hand in almost everything—career (with mastery of a language comes another country you could work in!), travels (no more stuttering, idiotic behavior), and most importantly, they have the possibility of meeting MORE people. Of course, being a native English speaker already has its perks… but speaking English is common; I want more. The more places I travel to, the more languages I want to learn. In Germany, I would’ve loved to speak German; in Spain, Spanish. But more so, I want to learn the languages in their natural environment because what’s more fun than that?
Now, after seeing what 5 months in France has done to my language skills, I know that languages aren’t out of my reach. The first true foreign language you try to learn is probably the hardest (depending on which ones you take on); you need to know how a language works and how best to tackle what first seems like a mass of unknown letters. Once you know your process, things should get mildly easier from there… hopefully.
I think I’ll learn Spanish next… what about you?