Sunday, September 11, 2011

My love/hate relationship with French

Life begins to take on an unpredictable series of ups and downs when you're learning a new language. It's like being a passenger on an eternal roller-coaster, blindfolded, because you never quite get the knack of predicting when the next ecstatic mount or earth shattering decline will occur.  It makes you behave in ways you normally wouldn't, you become irrational and unable to explain your own emotions. It's worse than PMS.

The downs tend to last longer than the ups. Hours, days, weeks. This feeling starts growing in the pit of your stomach, triggered by a poor grade, an awkward conversation, a misunderstanding or your inability to remember a simple word you've just learned. It eats at you. You start to feel as if nothing in your life is going right, as if you'll never be able to figure out this language. You become jealous of people who are fluent, and develop an intense annoyance toward anyone who is bilingual, convinced that you will never achieve the same level of fluidity in this language. In usually involves an emotional breakdown, in a bathroom stall, on a crowded street or in a group of people you know who get that detestable, pitying look on their faces. You're tempted to become a hermit, leaving your room only when absolutely necessary (after all, you're never going to learn this language so why bother leaving your room?). The internet becomes your portal to the outside world of English, which inevitably equals happiness.

Until, by some sudden change in the winds, an experience comes along that puts you on top of the world again. It could be as simple as fully understanding a conversation, using a new word correctly or telling your first joke in a new language. It happens when you discover that a new door has been opened, a communication barrier is broken down and you find yourself adding yet another pearl to your small but growing collection of ways to express yourself in another language.

My latest high came from a picnic and a bonfire. There are certain things that don't need translating and sitting on the grass enjoying a picnic after a swim in the lake is one of those.  The whole afternoon was a mix of French, English and Portuguese. And as I listened to this melange, understanding some but not all of the conversation, I began to realize the beauty of learning a new language. Regardless of where I was at in French, I was now able to understand a bigger piece of world around me.

That evening we had a bonfire at my house with all of my roommates. After a couple glasses of wine I discovered that I was understanding more of the conversations around me than I ever had before.  I was able to speak in a way that conveyed more of my personality.  And that was all it took, along with some gentle corrections (nouvelle, not nouveau) and a word of encouragement (ton fran├žais est vraiment bon) and I was back on top of the world. I was able to make people laugh and simply enjoy the company of new friends, and when it comes down to it, that is the essence of what makes me happy in English too, so maybe this whole experience doesn't have to be so foreign after all.