Well, that didn’t take long! Only days after I patted myself on the back for my bourgeoning grasp of the French language, the language gods brought me back down to earth via the horrifying event known as the language exchange. Nothing makes you feel more humbled and helpless than trying to have a conversation with a suave European who grew up speaking at least two languages but is hesitant to converse in English because they sometimes get confused by jargony words like “sustainability,” while you yourself desperately try to remember how to say in French anything more insightful than “The weather is cold.”
Okay, okay, it wasn’t quite that bad. But it certainly wasn’t good.
Before we left Boston, I stumbled across this event called Franglish when looking for language courses. Meet-ups are held multiple times each week at bars across the city, and you register in advance to ensure that half the attendees are native French speakers and half are native English speakers. Then, it’s like speed dating: seven minutes speaking one language with one person, seven minutes speaking the other, then you move on to the next person. Two hours later, your brain is fried but your grasp of the other language should supposedly have improved.
So what did I learn? In terms of actual French, I learned that the word for renewable (as in, “I work on renewable energy”) is a tongue twister, and I re-learned the past participle of “to live” (“Have you always lived in France?” was one of my go-to questions). More importantly, I learned that my comprehension of others’ French is terrible, that few of the French attendees needed any help at all with their English, and that the best language coaches are those rare souls with seemingly infinite patience who will happily speak slowly, repeat themselves two or three times, and wait while my brain searches for words. Not coincidentally, those are also the people with whom I had the best, most satisfying conversations.
When you find one of those rare souls, don’t let them go! Colin and I immediately asked two such people out on friend dates to practice our language skills over more beer. Of course, we’re now thousands of miles away for three weeks (Hi! I’m in Antigua now, did you know? More on that later!), but luckily our new friends agreed to get back in touch later in March.
So I guess the two things I actually got out of Franglish were this: (1) the reassurance that I survived and can do it again and so maybe eventually I’ll speak more French, and (2) fingers crossed, new French friends.