Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The universal language of insecurity

     When I was talking to some fellow travelers on the train from Lyon to Toulouse, one of the French women in the seat next to me observed that "The French are well-known for not having good language skills."  I kind of goggled at her and told her that was not my impression at all, and that I had the impression that France was not at all known for a lack of language facility, especially when compared to the United States.  Another woman chimed in and said that she agreed with the first woman and that though students study language, their study tends to be formal and written, so that many French people are not facile speakers and are uncomfortable about speaking foreign languages.
     I have had a couple of other conversations like that since then, with French speakers expressing their discomfort with their English language skills -- when in fact, most of the time, I hope I sound as fluent as they do! 
     Today, I hurried out to the courtyard in order to run into the woman who lives in the apartment above ours as she was walking her dog.  My kids have been playing in the garden and, from time to time, making enough noise that her dog (a smallish dog, maybe a Yorkie) yaps loudly at them.  I wanted to catch her in time to introduce myself, apologize for the noise, and make it clear that I'm trying to get the kids to keep it down.  Also, I planned to mention that the kids don't speak French, so if they're in the garden, they can't really understand anything that is said to them.  (Just in case she decided to tell them to keep it down and thought they were ignoring her or something...)    She was not only exceptionally kind about all of it -- mostly a "kids will be kids, and sometimes dogs will yap" response -- but she wanted to warn me about a couple of places in the garden that she thought were a bit dangerous (and why).  As we spoke, I made my usual apology for not always having access to the right words, etc., and she smiled kindly and said, "I would be happy to speak English as well as you speak French!"  We haven't spoken English yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out that in fact, she does speak English as well as I speak French.  It's nice to know that I'm not alone in my insecurity, though!

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