My quest to fluent French has reached a point that I unbelievably failed to anticipate. Clap slowly and sarcastically if you wish but I have realised that French people, to whom I speak French, have feelings.
It has been a game changer.
Until two days ago I spoke French. I spoke French but I didn’t do much else in the way of senses. In fact I dare say it is accurate to describe me as senseless for the majority of the cumulative time that I spent speaking the language.
When you speak a foreign language it seems you are one hundred percent focused on doing just that. You are either spitting out words hoping for the best or chewing over them as they grow weightier and weightier in your mouth the more the moment to speak slow fades away. Your thought processes, the synapses in your brain, every ounce of your energy, every brain cell and every nerve ending is alight with the endeavour of speaking.
Much, it appears, to the detriment of the other senses.
We know listening is important and while there’s been an element of that in my French interactions more often than not it is when presented with questions that I fall apart. My mind is simply too full of words to focus on the act of listening. The questions I am asked I can answer – they are not beyond me in terms of understanding – but they are out of reach because I have concentrated up to recently on one specific skill set. And I wonder why it has taken so long for me to feel as if the family really know me.
It makes me think about intelligence and how it plays into the learning of languages. The intelligences we usually malign – the emotional intelligence or creative intelligence or other sort – are the kinds of intelligences that I should have been employing these last couple of months. They have been missing from my French. My French has been an academic undertaking, and must have sounded like one all these years.
Living in Paris, surrounded by my partner’s family, made the issue of emotional intelligence when it comes to languages very clear. It also made me cringe for how I seemed to have missed this completely for so long. Over the last couple of weeks I have witnessed great sadness and grief, loneliness, upset, joy and abundance and surprise. I have partaken in the events causing these feelings too and shared the experience through another language with people very close to my heart. And it struck me the other day that my French has never considered feelings. I have never spoken French which really took into account how other people are.
In English I do it. I look for the signs that someone is feeling off, feeling down, feeling proud and I change my language to suit that. It is natural and normal and kind to do so. How robotic I must have sounded in French to continue to respond to others as if their varying emotional states didn’t matter. I am embarrassed to think of how I must have come across and ashamed of the kindness, and the empathy, I have been shown despite this.
The other evening one member of my partner’s family was unusually quiet. Perhaps I am self-centred but my immediate thought was that this person didn’t want to speak with me because my French wasn’t good enough or because they were tired of me being around. It was only when my boyfriend returned and I took one look at him – tired from a long day, asking if he could be alone for an hour or so to relax – that it hit me. Someone not wanting to speak with me on a certain day is more than likely nothing to do with not wanting to speak with me and more to do with simply not wanting to speak at all.
The language of empathy and understanding. I need lessons in that I think before I duck back inside the covers of any French book.