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.
6 thoughts on “Questions Require Answers”
Language definitely gives you a richer experience but lack of it shouldn’t stop anybody from traveling! For one thing, during a trip you will pick up more vocabulary and understanding than you would from months of study. Being there puts language learning on steroids.
If you can, find bilinguals who can lift the curtain for you, to explain puns or figures of speech or lyrics to songs.
I’ve lived in three countries where I spoke the local language but I’ve traveled to many where I didn’t. Those travels were still deeply enriching experiences. So go for it!
Hi Catherine. As so often happens, you’ve picked up on a point that I’ve managed to neglect. Thank you – I’m always grateful for the reminder. You are absolutely right – my French skills are so much better by the time I leave as opposed to when I arrive in France. And thanks too for championing the importance of travel. On top of France, we’ve also travelled widely to countries where we didn’t speak the language AT ALL – and come home better for the experience!!
Janelle, I am so flattered that you thought my question important enough to address publicly! and I very much enjoyed reading your thoughtful response, especially now: on my way to France this time, I flew to Barcelona and spent three days there, and I speak no Spanish. Your response is helping me to make sense of that part of my trip – my first ever to a place where I do not speak the language. I have been giving it a lot of thought and trying to make sense of my reactions.
Then on my way to Paris, I spent a few days in Port-Vendres with a group of Americans on a Sister City cultural exchange. With one exception, I was the sole French-speaker.
First, the exception: a retired US Navy gentleman of a ‘certain age’. After retirement, he had decided to take French classes at our Alliance Française and had completed, I believe, the first two semesters of the adult beginners class. He enthusiastically attempted conversations that he was not really prepared for, and that conscious stretching rewarded him exponentially – his sometimes awkward efforts were repaid with kindness and encouragement and his skills improved literally by the hour! The French have a saying: “C’est en forgeant qu’on devient forgeron.” “It is by forging that one becomes a blacksmith.” Lesson to take away: when speaking a foreign language, throw caution to the wind!
My students too often hold themselves back by wanting to speak French ‘perfectly’ before they will open their mouths. But who speaks their own language ‘perfectly’? A charming French woman once leaned over to me at a dinner and confided that she had a moment earlier in the day when she just couldn’t get the genders correct and wondered if I ever had that problem? After a mental happy dance at the thought that she found my French good enough to think i was French – her remark was a terrific reminder that NO ONE speaks their own language without a certain amount of insecurity.
People are told all the time to dress for the position to which they aspire, not the one that they already hold – and watching my fellow traveller showed me that trying to speak at the next level beyond which you are already proficient will take you to the next linguistic level in the same way. (A style reference!)
The French LOVE their language, and are flattered and delighted when we make efforts. Yes, sometimes they will (as you pointed out) break in and speak English, but usually that is because the French are, overall, a remarkably helpful people and they want to make things easier. Let them know that you want to continue in French, and almost always you will be met with patience and encouragement. (And sometimes you will find that your French is better than their English!)
It was my absolute pleasure to answer your questions publicly Alisa – thank you so much for asking them. I’m not sure that I hold myself back because I want to be perfect, but I definitely have a level of self consciousness about my French language skills.I think I need to follow the lead of your ‘exception’ (and your style reference) and start speaking for the conversations that I want to have… I’ve done way more than 2 semesters at the Alliance!!!
Enjoy the rest of your travels. Stay safe and have an amazing time xx.
I learned French at school and have taken private lessons for about 7 years. It’s only now that I am fluent that I find people will allow me to have a conversation in French. I was in Paris for a week a couple of years ago and made friends with the charming cafe where I went for a kir most evenings before dinner – she always spoke to me in English even though I always spoke to her in French. In the end I asked her why. Her answer? She would have got in trouble with her boss- it was her job to speak to me in the language I was most comfortable in rather than allow me to practice French. So what do I love about speaking and understanding French well? I love watching French TV – I still find dramas difficult but I can watch and enjoy French news and French reality TV. I also love listening to conversations on the train- such a slice of life. A whole new world has opened up to me in France as my French has got better.
Thank you so much for your insights Jo – especially what you love about speaking French and the world that has emerged for you as your French has improved, and the revelation about why we sometimes can’t practice our French! You also now have me considering private lessons…it’s the one thing I’ve not tried. And who knows. I might get there yet!!