Reflecting on Paris: Mission Accomplished?
Sep 24 2014
The goals heading into Paris

The primary goal of my three-week trip was to gauge my progress in learning French. The goal wasn't necessarily to learn new French as it's very easy (and quite common) to fall back to English in Paris. It's likely not the best venue for immersive learning unless you're lucky enough to find people willing to work through a conversation.

Originally the plan was to spend six consecutive months in France, with the last two in Paris. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had it backwards. It made a lot more sense to gauge progress while I had the option to use English if necessary, then make adjustments for the next trip to Sancerre and Lyon, where English will be far less pervasive.

A closer look at the results

In terms of the goal of gauging progress: mission accomplished. When it comes to the level of progress, well, I learned I have a long, long way to go.

There were highs and lows, a mixture of smooth interactions and a few awkward disasters. Some things got easier over time as my confidence grew and I got used to the cadence of Parisian banter. The first time I ordered a meal I was petrified, but within a few days I'd gotten the hang of it. To my disbelief, only the very first waiter switched over to English. In fact, out of all the people I met, the only time English was used was when I needed mercy and requested it.

Counterintuitively, some things actually got more difficult as time went on. As my accent improved and confidence grew, some people apparently thought I was French based on my first few words. That's a compliment in itself, but they subsequently launched into dialogue that went so fast my head was spinning. They were probably confused (but hopefully not too irritated) when I threw on the brakes and switched to English.

Some days it felt like I'd found my groove with short, smooth conversations held entirely in French. Other days it felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. Very little of what I said would "register" with whomever I was speaking to. Even more bizarre were the days that fell somewhere in between. I wondered if perhaps my accent was just good enough to make people think I might be French, but just bad enough that they couldn't decide which language to pick when responding.

The alien in the pharmacy

Perhaps the most bizarre encounter occurred during a visit to the pharmacy. Upon entering I noticed an older man behind the counter while a young woman immediately greeted me and offered assistance.

I returned her greeting and said, "J'ai un rhume, vous avez des décongestionnants? [I have a cold, do you have decongestants?]"

I'm not sure how to describe her facial expression at that point; it was as if she thought I was an alien. An awkward negotiation of words ensued, during which we established a few times that I had "un rhume." During this exchange, I could see that the older man was completely on my wavelength, in fact he was already scanning the shelf for the medicine he'd offer just a few moments later.

When I got to the register, I smiled as I rifled through my wallet and said, "Sorry, I'm still working on my French."

The girl chuckled a bit but the older man waved me off as if to suggest my French was fine.

That was my chance to get a confirmation. "Décongestionnants? Is that not how you say it?"

They both nodded at that point and the man said, "Oui, Monsieur! In fact your French is better than my English."

I genuinely appreciated his comment but I left the pharmacy completely confused. How could two people hear the same thing and have such vastly different reactions? Well, later in the day I had a conversation with the hotel receptionist (the best French conversation I had during the trip) and shared the riveting tale of my pharmacy encounter. The first bit of encouragement was that he understood my story as I told it. The second was that he was able to shed some light on what might have happened. According to him, it's not necessarily common to enter a pharmacy and request something specific, but instead one typically says, "I have [such and such symptoms], what do you recommend?"

So, there's consolation in that it was likely an issue of cultural protocol rather than a linguistic failure on my part.

Victories and humbling moments

I had a simple definition of a "victory" throughout the trip: any time I spoke French and the result was neither a strange reaction nor an English reply, that was a victory. I'm happy to say I had many victories, and they came more frequently as time went on. Conversely, the most humbling moment came when I attended a show at Théâtre Rive Gauche. It felt as if I only understood about 25% of the dialogue, which I found discouraging initially.

In reality the percentage was probably higher, I just wasn't used to hearing French delivered so quickly without any subtitles to rescue me. By the time my brain processed one line I missed the next three. I'm no longer discouraged or traumatized, in fact it was a necessary wake-up call.

Adding up the victories and humbling moments, the bottom line is clear: in order for me to make serious progress, I need to move beyond books and software. Uncomfortable as it may be, I must practice speaking on a regular basis with people who are fluent. If that means a tutor, fine. If that means random French natives on sites like WeSpeke, that's also fine. But it's critical to move on to the next stage now in order to get the most out of my trip to Sancerre and Lyon.

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