Phonetics is my hardest class. Being able to decipher the difference between opening your mouth and closing it to create two very similar renditions of an “o” is not the easiest thing to learn. Every class is a trial of tongues. We sit there speaking gibberish as we try and perfect the French dialect. I had to repeat the same sentence 10 times with the teacher forcing me to rest my hand against her throat so that I could feel the difference (since hearing how it was supposed to sound just wasn’t working).
But in a cosmopolitan city like Paris, wouldn’t you assume that loads of people who inhabit the winding back alleys have different dialects and accents to their French? And if that’s the case, what’s the point of being in the class if people can understand my French fine when I speak?
Because those people know I’m American.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud to be an American. But I’m in Paris to learn how to be a functioning French person without receiving any, “Oh, you speak English” looks. My friends and I stopped at Le Jaurès right down the street from my apartment to grab a quick dessert. I was craving an awesome ice cream/cake combo. I had to run home for a second to grab a few extra Euros, but when I returned, my friends had already ordered and began eating their desserts. How rude! But when our waiter asked me what I wanted, I politely responded, “Rien pour moi Monsieur, merci!” Impressed by my “fluent” French, he looked surprised and said, “Tu parles le français très bien,” to which I proceeded to laugh and feel superior to my American amigos. Really? Was I just COMPLIMENTED on my French? Talk about immersion.
But of course I had to pull a total American move. I asked him where the bathroom was and he spewed out directions faster than NASCAR. Needless to say I did not understand the inflection in his voice, nor his deep, sultry Parisian accent. As he switched up the lingo, literally, and redirected to the toilets in English, I’m pretty sure he wanted to retract his previous statement.
Tuesday was presentation day in my conversation class, and I had to present a French, bohemian neighborhood called Montmartre. Still profusely sweating from my badminton class and totally unprepared, I somehow managed to pull off a decent PowerPoint slideshow. I made sure to speak extra slowly so that my audience of 15 students could hear me, and well them, and my professor. When all was legitimately said and done, my professor asked me what I thought I needed to improve on. Naturally, I said memorizing my lines before giving a presentation because I would look down at my notes after every five sentences. Sadly, she shook her head and said my phonetics needed improvement…
(Cue sad music and storm clouds)
In the CIEE Center, we have a rule: PARLEZ EN FRANÇAIS! Pretty understandable. I even have a button the says, “Je parle français.” I mean, the very first day of classes we were all asked what our goals were for the semester, and of course 99.99 percent of the people said they wanted to improve their French speaking. But if you could be a fly on the wall in the center, you’d see that when the professors aren’t around to spy on us, English is constantly oozing from our mouths. I’m almost positive we won’t learn French that way. Actually, convinced we won’t.
But even interacting with French people is hard. The minute they sense an American tone, they instantly speak it just to make you feel comfortable even though you’d rather speak French. Sitting in phonetics class the other day, I glanced over at a few notes the girl next to me took for her Intercultural Communications class. Underlined was “immersion cannot exist without language.” Truer words have never been spoken. Sorry Shakespeare, Ghandi, Obama.
Without language, you can’t ever hope to break the barrier between countries. To understand a culture, one must first have a basic understanding of simple phrases in the native language. That’s why I’ve asked to my host to only speak to me in French, and I’ve walked around Paris with French students from actual French universities. I take an extra course at Paris VII or l’université Diderot just to see what college is like for the Parisians.
Will I be fluent by the time I leave in December (I don’t want to think about that), probably not. Will I be able to hold a conversation without having to ask for an English-to-French translation? You better believe it.