When I moved to Paris in late June with just a single academic year of beginning French under my belt people assured me that, "Oh, you'll pick it right up when you get there!" But nearly six months later, my language skills have all but stagnated.
At school the students, who are all international, either speak English or their native languages to each other. And the food truck, which is predominantly staffed by expats, isn't much better. I never wanted to be one of those people that moves to a new place and makes little to no effort to imbibe the local culture but, oops, I guess I kind of am. It's not that I don't try at all, but rather that in a foreign setting language acts as a security blanket. (Also I've found in many cases that when I speak French to native speakers they respond to me in English, as if to say, "Nice try, buddy, but your accent sucks! Now let me show you up with my English.")
I really admire my friend who, after moving here from Australia knowing virtually no French, took our six-week break from school to enroll in an intensive language course. Last night she invited me over for an informal dinner with a couple of her classmates; the caveat being that on avait besoin de parler français.
It was strange at first, because Steph and I are so used to speaking English to each other. Suddenly it was difficult to make jokes and use sarcasm, and stories that would have taken all of ten seconds to recount became arduous and slow-developing as we struggled to find the right vocabulary. But over time we developed a rhythm. When Ina, a German, wasn't sure of a word she would ask Sabrina, a Swiss girl in a more advanced class, in Deutsch; when I didn't know a word I would look it up on my phone. Sometimes no one knew what the other was trying to say, which inevitably devolved into wild gesticulation and laughter.
"Tant pis," we said, French for, "Oh well."
I enjoyed it, though, because since we were all beginners it was a rare moment when I didn't feel self-conscious speaking a language I barely know. During the summer when I had a French roommate, I often struggled to keep up with her and her friends in conversations. By the time I understood what was being said and had thought of something to add, the topic had already changed.
But with the four of us there that night it was, as paradoxical as it sounds, a comfortable level of awkward; each pause bringing us together as much as the words that followed because we all knew what it was like to feel able to communicate at only half-capacity. Some things are just universal.