Paris, je ne comprends pas

“Es-tu fiers du passé colonial de ton pays?”

It wasn’t going too badly until now.

I’m 17, and I’m coming to the end of what I think is a reasonably well argued debate over the proposed increase of the pre-charge detention period for terrorism suspects from 28 to 90 days. The conversation has meandered in the directions of race, Islamophobia and civil liberties. It’s also my A-level French speaking exam, and I’ve just been asked whether I’m proud of Britain’s colonial past.

I won’t say this was a particularly easy question, and not just because I lacked the vocabulary. Once I picked myself up from the floor I think I managed to cobble together a reasonable answer using whatever words I knew about how the economic growth was undeniable but it wasn’t right to achieve it using forced labour. At this point I realised I didn’t know the word for ‘slavery’. I’ve never forgotten it since.

Some people are naturally good at languages, and I’ve accepted that I’m not one of them. Unlike my former housemate, who got a degree in French, Spanish and Arabic before moving to China to brush up her Mandarin, I really have to work to pick them up – which also means I really have to work to keep them up. Unfortunately, from the dizzying heights of my A-levels I then went and focused on an English degree and while I’d like to think I’m pretty bloody decent with my mother tongue, I can’t say my French has kept pace.

Every now and then I’ll pick up a newspaper or read a French website to try to keep it fresh in my mind. Reading and writing were never my problem, though, and I picked them up reasonably well. It’s much harder to practice the skills in speaking and listening that I found much harder to start with. This means that, as is so often the case in my life, the bit where I fall down is the bit where I have to open my mouth.

A shocked lion on a statue at Paris' Chateau de Versailles.
It ends up just as uncomfortable as this lion at Versailles, which has clearly realised it left the gas on.

Before that fateful speaking exam, I was terrified. I was terrified before pretty much every speaking exam I ever had, including in my own language. A conversation is by its very nature spontaneous, and you’re in a direct interaction with another human being who is appraising everything you say as you say it. Given my human but painfully acute dread of humiliating myself in front of others, assessed French speaking exercises were a recipe for disaster.

I didn’t do too badly in the end (practice makes perfect), but it was a bit of a rollercoaster to get there. Even if I’d found more chances to speak French in the intervening eight years (oh God it’s been nearly eight years), I probably would have chickened out of taking them.

I can usually string together a sentence of my own, because I have time to think about it before I speak. But the moment someone replies to me in French, I panic. I freeze. I become incapable of forming a response. How do we know this? Well, when I went to Paris in 2011, this happened when I tried to buy train tickets. You know, that basic transaction everyone practised when they were 12. Smooth, Parkin. Just like the natives.

So when the chance came up to go to Paris again this year I was determined to brush up beforehand. I started practising sentences and common phrases aloud, downloaded a French news app and started reading it every day. I was committed. But I didn’t practise actual talking to French people, which is harder than talking to English people in French because light is slower than the average French person’s speech.

Hence conversations that went something like this:

“J’ai moins de vingt-six ans, donc est-ce que entrer le musée est gratuite?”

“Oui, vous something something something something something”

“Erm…”

“Join the line and show your ID at the ticket office. Thank you.”

I did my best. It was just pretty bad. I know that at least making the effort is generally appreciated, but that’s a pretty basic conversation that I’d like to think the 17-year-old me who talked about civil liberties and used the subjunctive would have handled pretty well.

When I started this blog, I was trying to acclimatise to life beyond university. I spent ages trying to train myself to read books for fun again, to read more than just 17th century tragedies and to ease off the critical analysis so I could enjoy a story without planning to write an essay on it. So after almost having to unlearn a lot of what I’ve studied, I’m in the strange situation where I’ve realised I need to relearn a bunch of stuff that was really quite useful – and ideally, I want to be better at it than I ever was.

Except for l’escalavage, of course. That’s one word I’ll never need to relearn.

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