How comfortable would you feel speaking your second language… on national television?
This is a question I got to answer recently, when I was asked to appear on a well-known French travel show, Echappées Belles. Wanting to create a varied cast for their Paris episode, they sought expatriates and found me.
“Be on TV?” I said to myself. “Great! But speak French on TV? No way…”
My relationship with the French language has not been an easy one. I began learning at age 24, when I moved to France. While many people supported and encouraged me, many did not: my first teacher terrorized me, ex-boyfriends in turn jeered and scolded me, and everyone I encountered had a different opinion on how and what I should be learning. Unsolicited advice came thick and fast, and even among friends, my difficulties were turned into jokes.
After a couple of months, hurt and angry, I retreated to lick my wounds. I dropped class and angrily threw my exercise books and grammar dictionary at the bottom of my wardrobe. I ditched the boyfriends and clammed up, surrounding myself with other expatriates.
But it’s pretty impossible to live in Paris and not speak the language, so I wound up teaching myself “on the street,” reading free newspapers, listening to music and jabbering to taxi drivers and other transitory strangers. And you know what? It worked. Eventually.
It’s been a long time since I almost cried in frustration in front of a bureaucrat who wouldn’t meet me halfway, or left a store without what I needed because I didn’t know how to ask for it.
I can take care of myself now, and have wonderfully deep access to my adopted culture; but my “School Of Hard Knocks” approach to language left me with a sizable chip on my shoulder. Although I am proud of the level I have attained, I am still vulnerable to criticism and jest, often reacting defensively to even the slightest joke. I have to constantly quash my pride when I think I speak better French than someone else, and overcome shame when I don’t.
Speaking French is not a simple matter of flicking a switch and carrying on with life. It is inextricably related to feelings of legitimacy, belonging and alienation. It is associated with anger and frustration, inadequacy, stupidity, and triumph. It is related to who and what I am, my place in the world around me and a constant negotiation and re-negotiation of meaning, intention and power.
Those feelings and more came thundering to the surface when the TV people came calling.
TV is forever. Everyone will know how bad you are. Every mistake will be recorded. Your accent isn’t good enough. You’ll be so bad they’ll subtitle you… were some of the helpful things my brain said to me.
I agonized about participating, and no amount of reassurance from friends, family or even the producers of the show really helped. I finally decided to do it, because I knew that the only thing really stopping me was my pride, and that didn’t seem like a good enough reason.
Once I was onboard, I got to work, brainstorming questions I thought they might ask me, looking up vocabulary and practicing responses I might give as I wandered around the apartment. When the day of filming dawned, I felt reasonably well-armed and though initially nervous, the crew was reassuring and kind, reminding me to relax and be myself.
With a camera crew in tow, I went about my day, chatted with the producers in various picturesque locations and did my best not to rush, mumble or overthink what I was saying. About eight hours and two separate shoots later I was exhausted, but relieved to have it over and done with, and I looked forward to seeing the result.
Weeks later, I sat on the edge of my couch as the program aired, knowing a few of my friends were doing the same. Then there I was. “Je m’appelle Anna… je viens d’Australie. Je suis en France, à Paris depuis 2011…”
Once it was over, I was thrilled with the result and eager to share it with everyone, posting it to Facebook and Instagram and writing about it on my website.
The reactions I received were overwhelmingly positive, supportive and warm. Native speakers and bilingual friends made points to congratulate me, and non-French speaking friends told me over and over, “you sounded so Frenchy!”
So what did I learn from it all?
Firstly, my Australian accent is more pronounced than I had thought: a useful and not altogether surprising piece of information. Secondly, despite this I’m perfectly understandable. And most importantly, you should never turn down an opportunity to speak your second language, especially if your main motivation for keeping quiet is fear.
If I could get my 5 odd minutes of TV exposure sewn into a Boy Scout merit badge, I would, and I’d wear it proudly every day. The experience has certainly given me a huge boost of confidence because now every time I falter, I can say, “Well… if it’s good enough for TV, then it’s good enough for my hairdresser.”
And the best part? I think that chip on my shoulder just got a lot smaller.