I just spent eight days in France and I’m not sure I put a sentence together in French.
Considering I speak as much French as I do Hebrew – only the common phrases – that’s probably a good thing. Or is it?
It might prove that foreigners have a leg up on us. They can switch languages based on hearing an accent or butchered speech.
Think about it: If you’ve been abroad, how long did it take a waiter or shop owner to switch from French, German or Spanish to English just based on your accent – or worse, your appearance?
I know I can’t and I don’t think the baristas at Pavement Coffeehouse or Starbucks on Huntington Avenue could either, but I might be wrong.
After five days in Aix-en-Provence with my almost-fluent best friend from high school, I expected to be able to fake my way through three days alone in Paris. I could successfully order between one and seven (because I forgotten how to say eight through 19) pain au chocolat (chocolate croissants), café au lait (coffee with milk) and poulet frit (chicken and fries), among the many other French classics that I came to eat.
But I was wrong.
It was pure English after the “Bonjour!” and before whichever delectable I was craving.
At first, I was kind of offended they wouldn’t let me try to fake it, but by dinner on day two I’d accepted that I was the American galavanting through their city in my North Face rain jacket (what’s a girl to do when the forecast calls for showers?) with a Nikon SLR slung over my shoulder.
But a few days earlier, while sitting on the train between Aix-en-Provence and Paris, I realized how much of a double standard we hold; we pride ourselves on higher education but few could serve the French in French. The night before this epiphany, my waiter couldn’t have been more than 16 years old and spoke in English so clear that it was obviously ingrained around toddlerhood.
Now admittedly, I speak a decent amount of Spanish and in most situations I found myself in this week, I could have answered in Spanish. (And I did. At customs in Amsterdam: Questioned in English, answered in Spanish while standing under a Dutch sign I explained why I was headed to Marseille, France.)
But what should be more alarming is that my transcript shows two semesters of elementary French under my belt. Only now did it become obvious that I “learned” it for the quizzes and final and not for practicality.
If you’re pursuing a bachelor of the arts, the NU Core has a foreign language requirement, but from what I’ve now experienced, it seems as if it’s a waste of credits – assuming you don’t follow your footsteps from high school.
Does that requirement really make us well-rounded and worldly if we can’t use it?
Some say it’s my responsibility for not keeping my French up, but the majority of the blame should be on our culture for not encouraging, or forcing, us to keep our foreign languages up.
I was in Spanish classes from second grade through junior year of high school and wanted to try something new because I felt like my knowledge had plateaued. I also didn’t feel like returning to writing papers in Spanish.
This plan failed. Switching to French was so hard that I longed for Spanish and went running back, but since it was ingrained from my childhood it didn’t take long to pick up where I’d left off.
Imagine where we’d be as a community if we were all multi-lingual and could treat foreigners the way they treat us.
Maybe then my North Face jacket wouldn’t seem like such a turn off.