25 Reflections: Language

Since arriving in France I decided to check out the popular Netflix series “Emily in Paris.” It’s a show about a young, beautiful American girl named Emily who finds herself working for a French marketing company in Paris, even though she doesn’t speak any French at all. In the show she flits about Paris posting selfies on Instagram and getting lavished with praise for blessing the French with her uniquely “American” perspective. To be honest, it’s all a little cringey. But, of course, I kept watching because there are so many beautiful shots of Paris!

I think maybe part of the reason the show bugs me is that Emily seems to have such an easy-breezy time in France, while I have not had such an easy-breezy time in France. She’s making friends, advancing in her career, her hair always looks perfect (even on the day she had to wash it in the bidet), and everywhere she goes everyone patiently speaks fluent English to her!

I feel the need to clear something up. French people do not speak English to other French people just because there is an American in the room who doesn’t speak French. If Emily found herself working at a real-life French company in Paris—everyone would be speaking to each other in French (really fast)—and she would be left out and no one would think she was innovative, brilliant, or adorable. She would just be an awkward, boring question mark that no one knows anything about, which is how I have felt most of the time, and probably why I’m angsty about a silly TV show not being “realistic” about French cultural realities.

Don’t get me wrong—I have loved our European adventure and I’m so grateful for all the incredible experiences we’ve had. It’s been amazing and transformative and healing. But I am nonetheless a wanderer in a strange land, and that is not without its challenges.

Communication and Cuisine

I’ve been trying to think of a good metaphor to explain what it’s been like for me with the language. Since I’m living in a village with a strong affinity for the culinary arts, I’ve decided to compare it to making food.

As an English-speaker, I like to fancy myself a trained chef with a fully-stocked kitchen. Just around the corner from our apartment in Kaysersberg is an amazing Michelin-star restaurant called Le Chambard. From the lobby you can watch all the chefs at work in their gleaming kitchen wearing their white jackets and chef’s hats. It’s fascinating and mesmerizing. These chefs know the nuances of their art so that they can create the right food for the right people and the right moment.

In my native language, over a lifetime, I like to think that I’ve developed the ability to do the same with words. I can tackle important issues, adapt my words to the person I’m communicating with, take on public speaking with confidence, make my friends laugh, and basically navigate the world with relative ease. I’ve got all the tools and ingredients I need.

Chef Oliver Nasti @ Le Chambard–an amazing restaurant just steps away from our apartment

Few Tools in the Kitchen

And then I moved to France. I’m no longer a chef in a white hat in a gleaming kitchen with shiny pots, organic everything, and fine vanilla. I can no longer bust out a perfect crème brûlée at a moment’s notice. Now my resources are more along the lines of a run-down camper in the woods with nothing but a hot plate, mini-fridge, pocketknife, and a cupboard full of SPAM. And I still want to give people the crème brûlée! It’s so hard.

French is my second language. I studied it for 4 years in middle school and high school, and an additional two years in college. Then I learned my third language—Romanian—while serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When I came back to the French, my pronunciations were definitely a little whack-a-doodle. But leading up to this trip I really tried to get the French back. I listened to hours of French podcasts. I read things in French. I watched French movies and TV shows. But what I didn’t do was speak to anyone in French, other than a very limited amount to my husband, Matt. I just didn’t really have any opportunities to practice actually speaking to people, especially native French speakers. 

And so now I’m here and I’ve had a very lopsided and frustrating experience. First, I can understand much more than I can say. Second, my communication aspirations are a huge part of why I’m stuck. When I was a young woman and learning Romanian in Romania, I was content to say things as simply as possible. I would water down my ideas until I had the words to express them. But now I’m in my 40s and I don’t like watering down my ideas. Mentally I’m trying to figure out a way to make the fancy food in the camper. Unfortunately, this only leads to awkwardness.

Don’t get me wrong, I am fine in a variety of situations in France. Grocery store check-out—solid. Buying croissants—I can even manage a banter. I can buy stamps and clothes and order food and all of those kinds of things. But what I cannot do is really connect with other humans through words. And this is what I long to do. This absence of my ability to do this feels like a swirling void.

What I’ve Learned

The past few months have inspired me to try to be a better communicator, whatever language I’m speaking. I am more humble now about my language abilities and have more of a sense of my gaps in French, Romanian, and English. Before we arrived in France I would confidently say that I spoke French. Now–after many months of daily work to improve my French–when asked, I smile and say that I speak “un petit peu” (a little bit). Even though I have come a long way, I see more clearly how much farther I have to go.

I have learned that language is a deeply important gift–and I have grown to appreciate my ability to express myself in my native language more than ever before. And even though it hasn’t been easy, I am very grateful for the chance to try to speak French to the French. I’ve learned that people appreciate the efforts you make to connect with them–even if those efforts are rudimentary. I am newly motivated to be patient with people struggling to express themselves in my native tongue. I’ve learned that body language is a huge part of communication and it’s good to pay close attention. I’ve also learned that spoken language shapes our thought patterns, and speaking another language helps you broaden your worldview as you learn to express yourself in new ways. And maybe one of the most important things I’ve learned by not being able to speak in the ways I want–to listen.

For more thoughts on what I’ve learned in France, visit 25 Reflections: Seasons of Life.