Scenario: Eight people are seated around an enormous table. Seven of them are French. The eighth one is you. The seven French carry on three conversations, two main ones and another that’s fractured into conversation splinters as the speakers randomly jump from their conversation to put a word into the other.
The speakers have to speak loudly, because the table is huge. The speakers’ voices cross fluidly over each other between the conversations, merging in and out of the endless stream of language that is not yours, within meaningless contexts, because the voices belong to family and family friends with a long personal history together that has nothing to do with you. You’re sitting in the middle of it all understanding nothing, neither language-wise nor topic-wise.
You’re fine. You think nothing of it. You just do the natural thing: you tune out.
Then one of the speakers looks at you and asks whether you understood what was just said. You’re embarrassed, and you’d feel rude admitting, “No, I wasn’t even listening,” so you force a little smile and nod just slightly, feeling like you’re telling half a lie. Your response is more a gesture of acknowledgment, but still, you feel something of a fraud. Never mind that if you were listening and if you did try to understand, you probably could have!
Even in our own language, it’s easy to tune out when the conversation between old friends reaches back to old times. There’s an intimacy in reminiscing. Outsiders aren’t privy to the back-stories of the personal histories involved. Mysterious references are made, faceless names are mentioned. It’s like sitting down in front of the T.V. in the middle of an episode in a series you’ve never watched. When it happens in a foreign language you’re yet learning, it’s even easier to tune out, especially if there are several episodes playing at the same time. It’s okay, though, because it’s just as interesting to watch the speakers’ animated faces with their changing expressions, to note their body-language, to hear their exclamations and their laughter. People-watching is a pleasure in a universal language, no sub-titles needed.
But I digress.
All of this to say, I’ve returned to my efforts to converse in French. Last year I stopped working on it, and now I’m working on it again… but I just started working on it again. Hence, all of the French television series we’ve been watching.
This is the story and extent of my spoken French: it’s still true that I understand more than I can speak. I’m able to carry on a halting conversation with one or two people at a time. I can comprehend most of what’s being said, but I can contribute very little. I get nervous and tongue-tied; I forget most of what I know. (I’m socially anxious to begin with!) I speak French the most freely when alone with Callaghan, as I’m more relaxed around him.
The weekend was good. It was fun times with our visitors from France, and I enjoyed it. They’re lovely. Lovely people make the best visitors.
Not to mention, I still got to the gym on Saturday morning.