Fear of saying something the wrong way can be debilitating. There will be opportunities lost in not saying what you want, or in not understanding what has been said. In my case, misunderstandings usually stemmed from my lack of self-confidence, and my constant questioning that often took over my capacity to speak. Even after I convinced myself, or even after I rationalized that if I made a mistake, things would be fine. I am never quite sure if things will really be fine. One thing is certain: if you want to learn to speak a second language as an adult, you will have to exercise practise, patience, persistence, and engage other people.
While learning a second language, I often found it extremely difficult to express myself verbally. It was as if I was in grade school where the fear of public speaking, or the reciting of anything, while standing in front of a group, left me in a state of distress. This fear followed me into adulthood. It had followed me to Quebec, into my Françisation class, where my hopes of becoming fully fluent in French were fairly quickly replaced by a hope to be able to just get by in my new language. I had feared if I had trouble speaking in front of an audience in my own language, how could I ever be expected to do it in a foreign language? It is with much regret that during my childhood, I never fully learned French past a level only useful to speaking to toddlers under the age of three. As limited as my vocabulary was, it expanded somewhat when I learned how to swear. When you are young, there is something very intriguing about learning how to spew profanities in a language other than your own. Although using coarse language against the Catholic Church didn’t hold any appeal for me, I was grateful that I could recognize profanity in French should it be directed my way.
As an adult, however, I was quite pleased when my French vocabulary had surpassed that of my sister-in-law’s dog. I was quite sure that Jack was not capable of understanding commands in the imperfect voice. I hadn’t tested that theory, but to Jack’s defence, and to my chagrin, he was perfectly capable of understanding the imperative voice long before I understood what that entailed.
Toddlers and dogs aside, and despite the fact that learning a new language as an adult was not easy, I persevered. It is well known that children learn communication through both verbal and non-verbal cues. It is probably not that well known that second-language acquisition by adults is also highly supplemented by non-verbal gesturing, at least in the beginning. Had anyone peered into our beginning French classes, we would have looked like an ensemble theatre troupe from the Marcel Marceau School of Mime and Gesticulation, The Quebec Chapter. Of course there is no such place, but had there been, we would have made the school proud.
A benchmark day in my evolution to becoming bilingual came when I went to see the film, The Passion of the Christ. In my personal war against bilingual illiteracy, I chose to see the film with French subtitles, and much to my surprise, I understood much of it. In my defence, I already knew the storyline and the ending, so I was able to follow it with some sense of ease.
Inexperienced users of a new language trying to broaden their vocabulary can, as I have found out, stumble into malapropism, sometimes leading to embarrassment, or at best, creating a very funny situation. Ironically enough, the word originates from the French phrase mal à propos, meaning “inopportunely” or “inappropriately.” So it was not a surprise to find out that I was not the only person afflicted with this phenomenon. Another student had broken his big toe. So when it was time for his oral exam, the easy question asked was “What happened?” Obligated to reply in French, he said pointing at his toe, “J’ai cassé mon oreiller.” The teacher started to laugh.
Perplexed, he had asked, “What is so funny?”
What was so funny was that the translation of oreiller is “pillow.” It was hard not to imagine a full-grown man tearing up a pillow by having a pillow fight. After the laughter subsided, the instructor explained to him that what he had broken was his “orteil.”
Languages are not static; they are continually evolving entities that require constant adaptation. For example, using Google as a verb made me slightly queasy, but now it has become part of my everyday lexicon, as well as that of my dictionary’s. Inexperienced users of a new language trying to broaden their vocabulary can, as I had experienced, depend on a dictionary just a bit too much. My whole life, I have used dictionaries with no problem. I have delighted in learning and understanding a word for the first time. The same holds true for French. Although, there are times that I have searched for a meaning of a word only to find that I needed to search for the meaning of the meaning. My personal record to date is six entries just to find the meaning of one word. Ignorance is not really bliss at all; it is mostly just frustrating.
If you expect to learn a language quickly by solely buying a book or a CD, I think the road ahead will be difficult. There are many tools available that preach quick answers. There’s even a Wiki available called How to Learn French Fast. It includes ten steps with pictures. I wish I would have known about that before. Just think of all the time and agony I would have saved. My personal favourite is the Audiobook, Fast and Easy French, which has all the aspirations of being oxymoronic, or perhaps it is actually about people. Personally, I am waiting for French in 30,000 Complicated Steps Including Exceptions to come out because that would be a more accurate title.
Learning new things can be intimidating, unfamiliar, terrifying, self-doubt inducing, and downright uncomfortable. So you must trust me when I say the sooner you accept that the road to fluency may never be fully realized, the sooner your language acquisition will be—dare I say—a lot more fun. To continue in your quest to French fluency you must read more, write more, speak more, yell more, order more, and sing more, but mostly, you must be more patient, and accept that there will be times that you will make more mistakes.