The Unexpected Joy Of Being Bad At French
The young crêperie attendant probably said something like, Excusez-moi? Or Pardon? Or however you say, Would you like to try the chocolate? But I could not even register that he was speaking to me. It was Valentine’s Day, and I, in Paris for the very first time, was apparently deaf to even the cues of vocal tone and facial expression. Though I knew that my French was measly, it was then that I realized just how much being able to count to 15 and say Je m’appelle Kyla was not going to cut it.
I had tried, very hard, to learn some French before I went on my long-weekend, non-romantic, and not-intended-to-coincide-with-Valentine’s-Day trip. I had myriad tools at my disposal—a podcast that I listened to before bed (and sometimes while sleeping); a fancy language app available only through my local library; conjugation websites that showed every last verb tense in creation. But ultimately, I did what an American in a pinch might do: Googled how to say very specific things and tried to hold on to the shape of the sounds as I wandered and scootered around the city. Je voudrais le chausson à la pomme fraîche was apparently a thing I could have said inside a patisserie. Or, Veut-vous prendre ma photo? outside the Eiffel Tower, waving my phone at a stranger. But when it was go-time, my little French phrases came out shy, barely audible as I stood at a register, coins of unfamiliar weight in one palm, asking, Combien cela coûte?, so focused on the question that I hadn’t learned what to do with the answer — which not once did I receive in French.
Despite all the resources at my disposal, I’d really had no intention of studying French in a meaningful way until I was in Paris. And not because my trip was short, but because of the limiting belief that I could not, should not learn French. I’d already chosen my second language: Spanish. In the ninth grade. I was done.
Though I’d heard the phrase, “and he speaks five languages!” tossed around about random men like some kind of aphrodisiac, for me, being able to speak more than two languages felt somehow greedy, indulgent. Perhaps, I feared, I’d make people uncomfortable with my abilities. Or maybe I felt guilty, like the proverbial child being told to finish her vegetables because some children had none. Some people didn’t even have a second language. How could I take on a third?
Fortunately, once I returned to the States, I realized that this was a false notion I had to shake. But as quickly as I’d made up my mind, I ran into a roadblock. As a teenager, I had soaked up Spanish almost passively, never receiving less than an A- throughout high school and college. I’d simultaneously taken Russian for a year, and learning a new alphabet and its grammatical case system had given me an almost unshakeable sense of confidence. So why, when trying to take on French, a language full of English cognates, could I not even remember how to conjugate the most ordinary verb, être? Je suis, I could say. But je suis what—happy, alive, a girl? And what about tu, and il, and elle? When I wasn’t busy practicing my two verbs (aller was my second greatest hit), I was pronouncing everything with that same hissing, hacking noise, trying to convert my trilled Spanish r’s to the infamous French ones, sounding like human TV static as I did.
I am. I go. My name is. One, two, three, four, five…fifteen. I listened to the same few French podcast episodes over and over, on the one hand, crediting my diligence, and on the other, feeling utterly stuck. When, months after my trip, I still hadn’t gotten much further, I started to wonder…am I bad at this? And though I was only in my 30s, was my lack of facility an inevitable result of…aging?
I must have thought I could shoot the language directly into my brain and immediately start watching Juliette Binoche films. In those first months, I had the same silly thought from every other time I’d been a beginner, another limiting belief: I will never get better at this.
I’d had those thoughts before. When I’d spent hours on a hot blacktop track at age eight, learning to ride a bike. When my grandmother taught me to crochet at 11, reminding me that the first row was the hardest. At 15, when I struggled to put in my first contact lenses. At 16, a late-blooming music student, trying to ply sound from the double bass. At 19, a socially frustrated college sophomore who hadn’t yet found her groove.
Yet alongside my frustration, a surprising feeling emerged. Not discouragement — but delight in my failure. My joy in my incompetence with French was kind of like my joy in my incompetence with Paris’s motorized scooters, which, on Valentine’s Day, I’d taken whizzing down the Champs-Élysées until I hit a rock and went flying off, my brain so flooded with serotonin from the time I was having that I could not register any physical pain. It’s akin to karaoke when you can’t sing, or ice skating pretty much anytime you try it, which is to say, the fun was in the doing, not the excelling. At 32, having lived in the same city for over ten years, having finished school and started a career, having achieved many of the milestones of young adulthood, it had been so long since I’d been an absolute beginner that being bad at something actually felt refreshing.
What so many people experience when they travel is the realization of how big the world is; how much more of it there is than you could have imagined. That’s what I gained—an expanded sense of belief, not limited by what I had already seen; a humbled belief in the power of what I didn’t yet know.
Now, a few years into my French journey, I am proud to say that I can count to a thousand. And I can form full sentences. Je suis allé à Paris. I went to Paris. Je l’ai adoré. I loved it. J’espère revenir. I hope to return.
This article is part of a series commissioned and paid for by Babbel, but it represents the journalist’s views. It was edited by Michelle No and Steph Koyfman.