I am a second language learner in France. My French language skills are
almost non-existent, to be honest. Karina Lepeley, Reading In Motion’s
Spanish Program Supervisor back in Chicago, suggested I write about this
experience, and what I might be learning from it. So here goes (in English).
I sit down at a cafe. The waiter comes over, after some time, and says “Bon
jour, monsieur.” I know what to say in response: “Bon jour, monsieur. Je
voudrais une juice d’orange.” (I’d like an orange juice, in English – my
frequent go-to drink in early morning here) Then the waiter replies simply
in French and goes away, or he then asks my wife Jean for her order.
If the waiter says something more to me, I am in trouble. Perhaps the
inflection in his voice tells me he is asking a question. But what is he
asking? If Jean is there with me, I look at her and she usually tells me
what he is asking. “Do you want it fresh squeezed or from a bottle?” Or
“would you like something else, as well?” There is a very limited range of
things he might be asking me at that time of day, and he can tell from my
American accent and very labored French that there will be a limit to any
interaction beyond the basics. Still, he says something more and I am lost.
I don’t have the vocabulary, plus he says it so fast that I cannot seem to
separate one word from another.
Now, from the waiter’s perspective: this guy orders some orange juice and I
want to be sure he gets what he wants, so I do not have to take it back. He
speaks lousy French, with a heavy American accent, but he is trying to
speak the language of the country in which we are standing and sitting now.
So, I’ll cut him a break and just ask one more thing, as simply as I can.
Look, no response. Is he dumb? Maybe his hearing is bad, so I will say it
louder and use different words, in case he does not know the words I first
used. No response again? Why doesn’t he say “I don’t understand”? He is an
idiot, or just another rude American!
I don’t know if any of this actually goes through a French waiter’s mind
when confronted with the likes of me. But the possibility reminds me of
what I have heard our own English coaches say sometimes when telling
stories about “this one little boy in Mrs. Smith’s classroom, who sometimes
responds to me and other times acts like he can’t talk. Then he doesn’t
respond when I ask him a direct question in English. I don’t know what’s
wrong with him.” And it reminds me of things I have heard teachers say in
English-dominant classrooms: “That little girl hasn’t said a word all year.
I need to have her tested for special ed.”
I feel like a 5 year old again in this foreign land! I am pretty smart in
my home language, but a total idiot in the dominant language of this
country. I can say a very limited vocabulary in French, and I say it one
word at a time. I only speak French when absolutely required, like when
Jean is not with me and someone directly addresses me, like in a store or
cafe. And I cannot understand 99% of what is said to me in French, so I
cannot respond at all, even if I had some vocabulary to use. The looks I
get back from French speakers tell me they have little patience with my
silence, and they think something is wrong with me.
If I was going to a night class here, surrounded by others my age who spoke
fluent French (sounds like a night-mare!), I would for-sure keep my hand
down and my mouth shut unless forced to behave otherwise. And it would be
very hard to respond if called-on in class. Would the other students, all
those fluent French speakers, laugh at my attempts? Probably!
Does this French deficiency make me less-smart? Do I need to be tested for
“special ed” here in France? Am I being obstinate when the “teacher” asks
me a question and I do not answer, hoping someone else (my wife, in my real
case) will rescue me with the right answer?
To answer Karina’s challenge to learn something from my experience, I’d say
coaches and teachers who work with young second language learners should
have to try to operate for a day in an environment in which everyone else
is using a language in which they possess no skills nor vocabulary. It
would make any adult more compassionate with second-language learners in
their English-based classrooms. Those students are not less-intelligent.
Those students are not being shy or obstinate. They just don’t yet have the
tools to succeed in English. So, figure out how to get them those tools, so
they can show you just how smart and capable they are!
Merci beaucoup, en France, pour moi enseigner ces choses. (By which I think
I said “Thank you, France, for teaching me these things.” Please, no spoken
On sabbatical in Paris!