Sunday, March 30, 2014

"I learnt classical Spanish, not the strange dialect he seems to have picked up." - Basil Fawlty's unconvincing excuse for not being able to communicate with Manuel.

Lately, I've spent time on a regular basis with no fewer than four native-French-speaking friends. And here's my problem: I associate French-the-language with French-the-discipline. I equate sending an email in French to emailing my advisor. To a situation where, if I mess up the gender of a noun, I might suffer professionally. Speaking aloud means formulating a coherent thought as one would in a seminar - something that might lead to a term-paper topic and maybe even a dissertation.

How did this come to be? Part of it's my own personality*, I suppose, but part of it is also, I'm convinced, about how I came to know French. I'd taken the language from age 8 on, but only really learned it while studying abroad in France. Which sounds so great - language immersion! Except that the immersion was in the form of intense UChicago courses conducted in French. The profs, some native-French and some not, all had impeccable French. But "French" was this thing whose grammar one learned in intricate detail, or the language of a giant stack of historical or literary texts. I'd read these texts in a genuine Parisian cafe... where the only French I'd speak was to order "un cafe, s'il vous plait." Our group lived not only together, but in an American dorm, with other Americans studying abroad. But there wasn't much time for hanging out - I had more (but also more interesting, given my interests) coursework that term than any other in college. Even if there were French people around, or if I'd been outgoing enough to track some down, I'm not sure when this socializing even would have taken place. Subsequent trips to Frahnce were like this but more so - but at least I have a dissertation to show for it? 

Anyway, I now have a new approach to addressing this. Rather than talking with a French-speaking friend in English, I explain that I'm shy about speaking French but very much want to do so. And then they'll speak French and so will I and that settles it. I just need to spell out what the issue is - i.e. that it isn't not knowing the language - and problem solved. 

*An actual anxiety dream I had recently: It took place (where else?) at my elementary/middle school. But I was enrolled. As an adult. Because even though in the dream (as in life), I had my high school diploma, there was some middle-school credit missing that I could only take at my middle school, like that's where the class was offered. (It didn't come up in the dream that I have a diploma or two beyond high school at this point, although in the context, it wouldn't have mattered.) I was in some office in my middle school lobby, or near the basement gym (which figures prominently in these dreams), trying to deal with the missing credit (my plan, in the dream, was sensible enough - I was going to let them know I already had a high school diploma, and had therefore finished as much of middle school as could possibly be necessary), when I saw a stack of some kind of... they were something like course evaluations, but students made them about one another, for the class I'd been taking (but, presumably, failing). And I could see two of them said that their problem with the course was a fellow student, Phoebe.

The dream ended on a strangely realistic note, with my thinking, huh, seeing as I'm on 91st and Madison anyway, I might as well stop for coffee and cake at Yura. My subconscious is a perfectly functioning Yelp when it comes to sit-down bakeries. 


Miss Self-Important said...

"But there wasn't much time for hanging out - I had more (but also more interesting, given my interests) coursework that term than any other in college."
I think you are the only abroad studier in the history of study abroad for whom this was true. Excepting maybe the Americans in the 18th C. who went to German universities, usually without any prior knowledge of German as far as I can tell and maybe not such great Latin either.

This is a pretty common anxiety among people who want to feel confident that they know what they're talking about when they speak publicly about anything and are mortified by the idea of being caught in a moment of basic ignorance. Perhaps it also accounts for your having gotten a PhD in the first place, and I think I recall some posts about this years ago - getting a PhD as a kind of overcompensation, so you are not perceived as a mere dilettante. (Not that I'm condemning this approach; I too think like this.) Foreign languages are a mire of anxiety b/c you're pretty much doomed to make simple and laughable errors in any language that's not your native one, so for uptight people, being pretty conversant is not enough to feel comfortable speaking. If I studied French, I'd want to BE the French Academy before I felt prepared to order a croissant. That's not realistic, so the only language I know is one with no speaking component.

Phoebe said...

"I think you are the only abroad studier in the history of study abroad for whom this was true."

My guess is, the fellow participants in the first-ever French-language-only Paris fall quarter abroad would agree. About the workload - not sure everyone enjoyed it as much as I did.

As for the rest, agreed, agreed, agreed. "If I studied French, I'd want to BE the French Academy before I felt prepared to order a croissant." Hilarious, but also true in a way that's specific to French. Being able to communicate isn't always good enough. In this sense, French may not have been the best match for someone with my general outlook. That said, the solution now could be that most of my French-speaking friends are Canadian, and thus not judging me for not sounding Parisian.

fourtinefork said...

I studied abroad in Germany: the program was American-run, but we lived in the regular dorms (and it was organized so that no more than two of us lived in the same complex) and we took regular classes at the university, supplemented by college-run tutorials. We were told that if we were heard speaking English-- even amongst each other-- we would be sent home. So, Phoebe, I understand your experience. And I think there are more people out there with similar experiences: study abroad isn't always just a non-stop party.

Being integrated in the dorms did mean I met a lot of Germans (and people from everywhere, actually), and I picked up a German boyfriend, which helped the socializing aspect a lot. I managed to pick up some good German slang, to the point where, despite my crummy accent, people assumed I must be from some crazy part of the country because no way would a foreigner know those constructions. But I loved immersing myself in the workload, which was pretty significant even if it had been my native language, and doing everything in German, and the whole shabang.

I'm terrified, though, these days of speaking German because so much of my previous fluency has disappeared.

Phoebe said...


That sounds like a much better approach to study abroad. I remember being resistant to that sort of program at the time, out of some very principled (in a 20-year-old sort of way) beliefs about it being silly to owe UChicago tuition for classes taken at a university that my French classmates would be attending for free. In retrospect, I should have... immersed.

Anyway, I'm sure you'd be fine speaking German if you got used to it again. With things like this (I'm thinking, in my experience, of running long distances, or driving), what matters is the confidence of knowing you could *once* do whatever it was.

CW said...

I remember being told by the adviser for my study abroad program in Moscow that having a Russian-speaking girlfriend or boyfriend would do wonders for my spoken Russian. That wasn't useful advice to a shy person like me, but I saw it play out that way for a few others in my program.

Phoebe said...


Yes, that is said to help. But it doesn't help the shy, nor does it help those already in relationships, which was the case for many/most of the people in my program. I've heard Dan Savage give a whole spiel about, you're young! don't commit too soon!, but if you're going away for four months, say, or one semester, it's a bit much to ask that you end a relationship that will only be long-distance for that short an amount of time.

Maybe the answer is for such programs to be earlier on in college? More of a chance of meeting foreign beaus, and as for shyness... 18's the legal drinking age in foreignsville, so that might help for some?