When I thought about spending two years in a Francophone country, I figured my French would get better. How could it not? After all, I’d be surrounded by French all day long.
Then I began to hear that this was not always the case. Too often, students fresh out of six months of FSI language training would go to post and find that nearly everyone in the embassy spoke English. If they didn’t have to work with many people outside the embassy, their skills would actually diminish. It made sense, of course, but I was determined that this would not happen to me.
In the past week, however, I’ve discovered a second problem with maintaining my French skills – the more I speak, the worse I get. Let me explain. When I was in class at FSI, the most important thing was to speak correctly. The second most important thing was to communicate my point. That meant that if we were discussing an environmental conference or an African election, it was better not to make grammatical mistakes than to communicate a nuanced point. Now it was still important to convey the general idea I wanted to get across, but beyond that, it was all about the grammar.
Now that we’re here, the opposite is true. When I’m speaking with Flynn’s nanny about how much to feed him or how he likes his bath or what to do when he’s spitting up, I quickly stop caring at all about grammar and only care that I communicate my point. Conjugation? No time for that. Vocabulary? Hand gestures work just as well. Past tense? She’ll get the idea.
So I’m hoping that my sloppy French speaking doesn’t stick with me and I don’t return to FSI in two years only to find I’ve gotten worse. I understand there are some classes at the embassy that can help me improve and I want to take advantage of them once I start working.
In the meantime, I’m going to continue to believe that the French word for “ironing” is actually just a hand gesture, that pronouns don’t really exist and that everything that has ever happened is continuing to happen at the present time.