Losing and Gaining Linguistic Instincts

by Nikita Jain

In the couple of weeks since I arrived in the south of France, I’ve realised that my quest for perfection is the main barrier stopping me from improving my French. I’m so afraid of making mistakes that I often find myself rehearsing sentences in my head before I contribute to a conversation. This is obviously not a good strategy: people have a tendency to move between topics extremely quickly here, so by the time I feel ready to say what I have to offer without making a fool of myself, it’s already too late. There are none of the comfortable silences I’m used to – if you’re talking to someone, believe me when I say you’ll be playing an active role in the conversation until one of you decides that it’s over and both of you move on with your days.

I am just as content to listen as I am to talk, but this doesn’t seem to come across to some of the people I meet here. No matter how engaged I look, they will inevitably ask me if I can understand what they’re saying. I understand them perfectly; I just have no desire to insert what feels to me like a ‘filler dialogue’ which doesn’t move the discussion forward. I recognise that it’s part of the culture and that it’s something I need to learn, and I’m sure it’ll come soon enough. If anything it just means I get more speaking practice!

A lot of small talk is based on instinct. Day-to-day interactions, whether they take place on the street, in a shop, or on the way to work, are where you end up learning what the natives say in particular situations. I’m gradually picking up a few key phrases which I can rely on, and sometimes when I use them it almost feels instinctual. It will inevitably take me some time to move away from the ‘classroom French’ I’ve been learning for the last decade or so towards the language which is actually used in the country.

People often say that you have to learn how to think in a language if you truly want to master it. I’m hoping this will begin to happen for me at some point this year, because right now there are many, many instances where an English phrase or construction pops up in my head and I just don’t know how to express it in French. I’m also beginning to reach a point where I am nowhere near comfortable with my French, but I also feel as if I’m starting to lose some of my instincts in English. It’s the worst of both worlds. I’ve stared at my screen in consternation countless times whilst writing this article, convinced that what I’d written made no sense. I guess you can be the judge of that.

I’d like to stress that my worries about my linguistic competence don’t seem to be shared by the French. Pretty much everyone I’ve met has been complimentary and happy to help me out if I’m ever struggling for a word. Nevertheless, no matter how many times I hear ‘tu parles bien français!’ the self-critic in me will always strive for more. Perhaps, paradoxically, it’s only through being patient that my instincts will begin to come to the fore.

The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford, written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff. New issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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