Time for a change of pace today.
As I’ve shared so many times before, I love, love, love it when Distant Francophile readers reach out to me with questions.
I’m always happy to answer these queries. After all, questions require answers. Regardless of the topic – style, confidence, packing for France, potential itineraries, French culture in general – I’m excited to offer a perspective.
And I’m especially pleased when I’m asked to answer the question here on Distant Francophile, as it allows us to start a broader conversation and potentially gather different viewpoints on the matter.
I had some questions come through recently from Alisa who, it seems to me, is at least as big a francophile as I am. Alisa travels to France regularly, whenever her life allows it, and stays for enviable lengths of time in Paris. She also generously offers very wise thoughts on both style and France through her comments here on Distant Francophile.
Alisa is a French language teacher, with a real interest in languages. Given this, it is unsurprising that Alisa’s queries centre around my French skills. Specifically, Alisa was keen for me to address the following:
How do you think your travels to France would be different if you did speak French fluently? Would it add a layer that is not there now, and what would that layer be? Or do you think that not understanding every word and being able to express exactly what you want to say gives you a different and interesting perspective that would be lost if you suddenly became fluent?
I guess before I dive into the details it might be helpful for me to give everyone a little context around my French language ability. Or, more accurately, my lack thereof. Because, if pressed, I’d probably rate my skills as somewhere between poor and ordinary.
Not that I haven’t tried to improve of course. I absolutely have. And like many adult language learners, I read and comprehend better than I speak. But despite years of lessons, a week of immersion at a school in France and trying what must be every prerecorded learning option ever created, the poor French still have me butchering their language every time I visit.
While the fact that I can only speak in sentences constructed with my limited skills has done nothing to diminish our enjoyment of our trips, I still desire to become more proficient for a few reasons.
How Things Would Be Different If I Spoke French Fluently (Or Even Slightly Better Than I Do Now)
- I’d have more context and, arguably, a richer travel experience. When you only pick up half the words or end up having a French speaker switch to English to give a brief run-down on something, you don’t get full context of what is being shared. I’ve often wondered what I’ve missed out on by not being able to follow a conversation from start to finish.
- I think I would develop a better understanding of the culture. Some cultural nuances can only be transmitted via language and there is a good chance I’m missing out in this department.
- I’d simply feel better when we are travelling. I’ve always considered myself a relatively polite person, so I really don’t like the fact that I often feel rude that I can’t speak in French while we are visiting. It just seems wrong when we are in France and the French have to speak in English to communicate with us. Added to that, if I’m being perfectly honest, I also feel somewhat inadequate that I’ve not yet mastered another language. It seems that so many people in Europe are multi-lingual and I am a long way from that.
Having shared all of that, there are still some advantages to not being able to speak French yet.
What I Like About Not Being Able To Speak French
- I feel like I’m more present and mindful in France. I find while I’m in France I focus more on what I am doing, or the conversation I am participating in, as there are less sounds I understand to distract me. And unlike at home where I’ve identified that I spend a rather chunky portion of my life on auto-pilot, while I’m on French soil I find that I concentrate harder and that I enjoy the mental challenge of trying to both understand and make myself understood.
- The impromptu lessons we receive from the friendly French. In our travels over the years we’ve had so many people in France assist us with our language skills. Waiters are particularly generous with their pronunciation tips. But we’ve also had some very entertaining and informative mini-lessons from taxi-drivers, tour guides and shop assistants over the years.
One Last Thought
Before our first visit to France almost 10 years ago, I’d actually used the fact that we couldn’t speak French as barrier to our travelling. I had it in my head that we would struggle to get by on a day-to-day basis. I also thought that we would not be able to appreciate things as much as if we spoke the language. But the reality was quite different to the situation I’d imagined prior to our initial trip.
We immediately found that our lack of language skills didn’t limit the enjoyment of our holidays. So many of the French are bi-lingual and we never had any issues with people not being prepared to swap into English to help us out. (Even when I didn’t want them to switch because I wanted to practice, I found they did it anyway.)
Where we encountered non-English speakers, our skills were good enough to get us through our day. And there was only ever one time where a telephone was hung up on one of us.
If you are like I was and using your lack of language skills as an excuse not to fulfil a dream of visiting France, please stop reading this immediately and start researching and booking your ideal trip. While I think there are advantages in being a traveller who can speak French, they aren’t strong enough to delay the joy that comes from visiting a beautiful part of the world.
And finally a big thank you to Alisa for asking her questions. I really hope I provided you some insight on what it is like to travel to France without being able to speak French.
Until next time – au revoir.