On Friday night I end up in a bar in the Marais, speaking wine-assisted broken Spanish to a bilingual Frenchman. For some reason I have made a lot of hispanophone friends here, and have been surprised in equal measure by the extent to which I’ve lost my ability to speak, and the extent to which I’ve retained my comprehension. I spend a lot of time nodding and smiling, interjecting ¡sí! to demonstrate that I am following. It might be true what they say about every piece of information you ever receive remaining in your brain, just buried and poorly filed: all my language lessons are still in there, somewhere.
In late August my French shifts gears and accelerates, almost overnight. Except that it’s not my French at all – the words, the grammar, the phrasing, it’s always been there in my head – but rather my ability to produce it at will. My confidence, mixed with a handy dose of screw it.
Sometime in September I realise I’m no longer scared. I no longer rehearse conversations in my head and my heartrate no longer skyrockets before meetings. I just… speak.
And it’s not all good. It’s far from good. I fumble conjugations, drop words, fail to catch nuanced meanings. But I talk, and sometimes whole sentences come out, fully formed, without my conscious involvement.
Language has always been a passion but now it borders on obsession. Surrounded by tri-, quadri- and even pentalingual people, I am mired in the self-inflicted shame of my linguistic inadequacy and I become a walking satellite, ears straining to tune in to every passing conversation, constantly testing myself: do I understand? How would I respond?
My contentment with my progress fluctuates wildly. Some days, a fluid five-minute conversation over the coffee machine will fill me with glowing delight; others, a misplaced adjective while buying cheese will cast me into dejection.
On Saturday, in unseasonable sunshine, my Guatemalan doppelgänger and I catch a cheap train to Epernay, in Champagne, and hire electric bicycles from the tourist office opposite Moët and Chandon. We strap bread and cheese and charcuterie to the back and pedal out of town toward the village of Cumières, where the grapevines grow so close to the houses as to almost swallow them.
Perhaps it’s because I’m tired, but I spend the day faltering: to the ungallicly enthusiastic young man explaining our bicycles, in the supermarket, at the train station. Proper sentences are just out of reach. When the battery on my friend’s electric bike stutters and goes out, having pushed us up one too many hills, I understand how it feels.
I cry off a dinner invitation, unable the face the rush and swell of conversation. Maybe my language skills are introverted too; after too much use they need quiet to recuperate.
The primary concern, of course – as everything I write here will attest – is that when it comes to language, I value form over function. For me what matters more than the story you tell is how you tell it: how beautiful your phrases are, how elegant your words, how lovely it all sounds.
And so, being able to understand and be understood is not enough. I fixate on my accent as much as on my sentence structure. Several times a day I hear myself say “please” and am frustrated again by the Australianness of it. No matter how many times I try, I haven’t been able to make it lovely. I suspect this, too, has contributed to my lack of confidence in speaking: not only am I afraid to be wrong, but I am afraid to be ugly.
On Sunday, my friend and I brave patchy rain to take advantage of the Journée sans voitures, an environmental initiative which bans cars from the city for most of the day. Wandering through the Marais after visiting a museum and a tiny photography exhibition, we stumble on an art showing by Melburnian Lisa Barmby. We stay for wine in plastic cups, meet her friends, take in her work. Lisa speaks excellent French – much more complex and ready than mine – with a strong Australian accent and I think, even artists get it: function over form is no bad thing.
On Monday night I join a running group and discover that I speak my best French, puffing, after 8 kilometres. Maybe the distraction of putting one foot in front of the other keeps me from second-guessing everything I say; maybe the rasping of my breath in my throat makes it easier to lean into my rs. Either way, it’s good to know that when it comes to language aids, I have a healthy alternative to wine.