There are two occasions when I speak French perfectly: 1) when I’m dreaming, and 2) after my third glass of wine.
During my graduate studies in the quaint town Leuven, Belgium, I lived in a small flat above a coffee shop. The owner was a lovely middle-aged Jordanian man who spoke Arabic, English, Dutch and French. He’d switch languages with enviable ease for his patrons who came in ordering in Flemish, French, or English. Without hesitating, he tended to their requests in the language they spoke. I watched in awe.
My landlord and I, of course, dialogued in English, but one day I asked if we could converse in French. He made us some strong espresso, took a seat, lit a cigarette, and then signaled for me to begin. After my first few words his face contorted in pain from the sounds of my speech. He looked like he heard a cacophony of nails down a chalkboard made by cats fighting in an alley. I decided to end our session and switch back to English for the rest of our friendship.
I was/am able to read French; however, taking the time to speak it always proved to be a challenge. Living in Belgium brought many opportunities to practice, but whenever I did venture a try people either responded in English or with a look as though they’d smelled something bad. A fart. They looked at me like they smelled a giant menacing blast of fart.
To earn a bit of money I taught English at a Belgian corporation in Brussels. (Because of the European Union and globalization in general, many businesses invest in their employees learning English.) At the end of a class one of the students encouraged me to say something in French.
He was quiet for a moment.
Did I stun him with my skills? I waited with hope.
Finally he said, “Whoa! You have a thick American accent!”
My good friend from Romania and fellow philosophy student who had lived in Belgium longer than me said: “It took me a year of speaking Dutch before anyone would reply to me in something other than English. Keep practicing.”
Being the cause of a cringe due to an accent is something for which I am honestly grateful. The frustration of searching for the right word in a second language while in the throes of communicating taught me the importance of patience. There I was, a Ph.D. student in philosophy with the speaking capacity of a child in French, and people would sometimes view me as such. Despite this I hold the experience dear.
Learning to communicate in another language is incredibly humbling. One must step outside of their comfort zone and be vulnerable. Mistakes are inevitable. Once the language begins to take root in the thinking process it is an amazing sensation. The world opens up. Objects seem different. Expression is different. Interaction is different. It’s like walking around in a parallel universe.
Returning to my home, southern California, I encounter people on a daily basis who are non-native English speakers. Shifting into an alternate grammar structure, pronunciation, alphabet, and all the nuances of language is difficult; moreover, the endeavor deserves respect. I’ve witnessed frustration and cringes on the faces of the native English speakers when they hear accents. “Speak English!” Assumptions about intelligence come into play albeit unwarranted. I wish for the angry hearted to give communication in another language a go.
Because of my time trying to speak French I make a conscious effort to listen carefully as non-native English speakers reach into their repertoire of unfamiliar words for communication. Now I cringe at the cringers!