My host mother has an excellent selection of jams out for breakfast every morning.
Cherry, fig, orange, strawberry – all the good stuff. Just a table spoon of any one of them takes my daily carton of plain yogurt from delicious to fantastical wonderland. One particularly creamy yogurt mixed with a particularly fresh plop of fig preserves caused me to exclaim to my host mother: “Mmm j’adore le preservatif avec le yaourt naturel!”
The actual word for preserves or jam in French is la confiture. I, on the other hand, told her I adore condoms in my yogurt.
After we all had a good laugh, I convinced myself that WHATEVER, French people will find my confusions charming and my accent cute so SCREW THIS. That’s probably the most important change in mindset one needs to have if one wants to be fluent in another language; getting comfortable with sounding like an absolute goof. So I killed that stereotype in my head about French people being super fancy and uppity pretty quickly after that. And it proved to be true. They really appreciate it when foreigners try to learn their language because god knows the French are mad proud of the French language. (See Academie francaise). But even so, not every single word out of a French person’s mouth is a profoundly eloquent word. Just like in American English, there’s a lot of “ums” (ehhh) and “you knows” (d’accord) and “really” (vraiment) and “oh my gods” (oh la la), etc. Je is pronounced like a sliver (zhhh) and il/elle becomes a hiss (eeee).
Being thrust into another country, into an unfamiliar language initially feels a lot like how I imagine being illiterate feels. My first week, people were abuzz around me, all this information was being exchanged, and I just got none of it. Streams of ideas, stories, sentiments, instructions attacked me from all angles and my inability to understand their rapid-fire French was a waterproof sealant over my mind. But I was surprised how much I was able comprehend a foreign language after a substantial period of full immersion. Poor French used to be the language of the world (where do you think the term lingua franca comes from), but as an American, native English-speaker, I found that so many students and people want to learn or improve their English. Finding French people to strike up a conversation with wasn’t hard and probably had the most positive impact on my French speaking abilities and my study abroad experience in general. Meeting these wonderful friends and teachers motivated me to improve my pronunciation and broaden my vocabulary so that I could understand them more and form a closer bond. A much more effective motivation than just getting an A on a French test and then pressing flush as soon as I turn it in.
I’m going to try to improve upon my current level of French when I get back to the States. At the very least, it will serve as a constant memory of the comical-mortifying yet dream time I had in France. Wish me luck 🙂