I’m not fluent in French.
I know as well as anyone that it doesn’t just happen overnight; I’ve spent nine months in a French-speaking country now. But looking back, I’ve come a long way since September. Past Me didn’t speak with the fluidity and confidence that Today Me seems to possess now. She didn’t know half the vocabulary and colloquial phrases Today Me now uses on a daily basis. She didn’t even speak, really, because she couldn’t.
There are certain phases you pass through when learning a foreign language. Anyone else doing it will know exactly what I mean. And what’s more, learning to do it all in a foreign workplace means it’s all the more intense, and you’ve somehow got to learn everything at the speed of light.
Here are four things you can expect to find yourself doing when you're working in second language.
Laughing at everything
I’m a sucker for a nervous laugh. And when it comes to speaking French, I’m a sucker for laughing when I have absolutely no idea what someone has just said to me.
I tend to just assume they’ve made some sort of joke, and that in laughing dismissively I’ll avoid having to phrase an answer. This way, at least it looks like I’ve understood them, right?
Do you know how many times I’ve laughed and walked away from someone at work, only to realize seconds later that they actually asked me a question or mentioned something serious (i.e. not giggle-worthy)? I don’t, I’ve lost count.
Looking up everything
During my first few months in France, I had two very good friends: Word Reference and Google Translate. I couldn’t even write a quick email to a colleague without spell-checking. I was a paranoid dictionary freak, terrified to make just one small error.
But there is something so liberating about hitting send without even looking up a single word. Yes, I still make copious errors, but I think an important part of the process is just letting go of that nagging grammar teacher within you, and writing as naturally as possible.
Understanding but being unable to respond
Possibly one of the most frustrating stages: you’ve finally reached a point where you understand 90 per cent of what’s going on, but your bilingual brain cells are still functioning at half the speed of everyone else’s. This means you get it, but you just can’t. . .come up. . .with a response. . .quick enough.
I know if I could hit pause on a conversation, maybe rewind a couple of times and take a minute to compose a decent response, then bingo we’re away. But sadly, it doesn’t quite work that way…
It gets better
Immersing yourself in a foreign-language environment, particularly a workplace, means you’re forced—with a certain pressure—to learn. I have learned an immense amount from working here in Guadeloupe, and most of the time I didn’t even have to try.
When you notice yourself starting to use colloquial words and expressions you’ve picked up from folks around you, it’s very cool.
And language learning wouldn’t be fun without the occasional faux pas. In my experience, it actually makes you more endearing to the natives around you: “Look at the little English girl trying so hard to speak our language”.
I hope someone out there can relate to this, while I continue to stumble my way through the French language in a day-to-day job I very much enjoy but only partially understandAdd this article to your reading list