I like to think of myself as pretty clever. Much of my identity rests in an ability to understand everything, grasp a quirky nuance, and respond with pith and wit.
In French, however, the work I must do to understand nothing more than context is excruciating and exhausting. I’m using my fingers to count, rather than digging up obscure definitions or references. The last couple nights I’ve simply let conversation wash over me without even making an attempt at comprehension.
Some of this is fatigue and complacency. All day, everyday I have to work to understand how much my coffee costs, or what we’re doing this weekend, and who’s coming, and when we leave. There’s no nuance, only facts and while it gets better, it also reveals how little I understand. Nearly everything.
It goes both ways, too. My translator asked today if his English was getting worse. He thought it might be. Indeed, it has been, though I also assured him I was thinking of it now more as dialectical poetry than conversation and found a certain sort of entertainment in that. I can imagine pronouncing all those “th”‘s gets tiresome.
Recently, though, I’ve found there’s a kind of peace and attentiveness that comes with being free from language. I don’t have to worry about responding but can focus on observing and interpreting gestures, eye movements, body language, etc. There’s a lot to notice when you don’t have to pay attention.
But then, I ask myself, how did I earn this place at the table? If my primary identity is to be clever and the only thing I can contribute to dinner conversation is some variation of “Please pass the mustard,” I fear I can’t be terribly interesting for terribly long.
Nevertheless, when I suggested my departure might be delayed a week, there was universal enthusiasm in this francophone household that they’d have another week of hearing me speak very bad French and of them having to have very simple conversations in English.
It’s no doubt very simplistic to identify someone primarily through an acquired skill, like language. Individuals have a lot of nuance.
A teacher of French, might assign a writing assignment: Describe your personal characteristics and how they relate to your activities. It would be good for the vocabulary.