Not-so Americana

See! I Told You I Speak French!

Two weeks ago, I began writing a blog post that was to be entitled “Dude, I Speak French!” and included many an anecdote about my various encounters with shopkeepers, baristas, and waiters here in France that had me red-faced and sweaty by the time I left the counter. When you begin learning a language, you’re eager to practice with somebody, and if you’re fortunate enough to practice in the country where said language is actually spoken, your heart starts fluttering before the girl at the register in Starbucks even asks for your order.

Just as we all know the excitement to finally practice our foreign language, we all know the nervous pit that eats all of our carefully memorized vocabulary and the following disappointment that arises when the waiter switches back to English or immediately recognizes that you’re American.  In these sorts of situations, I used to turn bright red and repeat my order in English, but as I’ve progressed in my French abilities, I’ve started simply repeating myself in French until the lady or man finally stops responding in English. I still encounter this problem sometimes, normally when I don’t quite hear what people say over the sound of coffee machines, or if there was just one word I didn’t quite get, and it can be frustrating to lose that perfect practice opportunity just because you listen to your music too loud and may have damaged a bit of your eardrum.

Anywho, this blog post was going to be a three page rant about that, but after spending a weekend in Paris with my American parents (which was absolutely amazing by the way!) I’ve decided to spin the second half of this article into something new. Maybe it was my new black boots, or the way I folded my heaping scarf, but I found myself walking into restaurants and being met constantly by French, even after I talked! You might be thinking, it’s Paris Dumbo, of course the French are going to speak French, but when the woman handing out pastries at a tourist trap café automatically speaks in English to the couple in front of you after a single glance but keeps up a conversation with you in French right after, you feel pretty proud of yourself. I even once got to a register where the girl did speak to me in English, but then apologized and told me that she was so used to Anglophones that English had become a reflex.

Now, I’m not cocky enough to believe that I have a perfect French accent, or am now fluent in French, but I can tell you straight up that living around native speakers for months on end really does affect the way you speak, even if you don’t think you’re improving.

I’ve picked up so much of my host family’s speech patterns and colloquial expressions that even if my American accent does poke through, the French know that I can understand them, and that I have more that a few expressions from a phrasebook in my pocket. That sort of ease of expression can’t be taught from a textbook or another Anglophone classmate or teacher; because no matter how hard we try, we’ll never speak perfect French, at least not like the French can.

It’s frustrating when conversations get flipped back to English, and it’s hard when the words seem lost when you need them most (It happened to me today!) but it’s important to recognize that we live in a world where English is a default language, and as Americans, our seemingly inescapable accents often give us away.  I can’t stress enough how stubborn you must be to get over it and give up the comfort of your mother tongue. You can do it though, it just takes time- and possibly a twelve year old host sister who speaks through a slur of abbreviations and trending hashtags on twitter-

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