When I moved back to New York from Paris, I began to notice a trend. When people learned that I had lived in Paris, their first question (once they’d finished gasping with joy) was almost always: “So, are you totally fluent in French?”.
At first, I thought it was a test. People wanted to know if I had really lived in Paris. Because if I’d really done it right, then I would, of course, be totally fluent. But as time has passed and the question has continually been posed, I think it’s less of a test for me than it is some kind of self-assessment measure for the asker.
A lot of people dream of living abroad, but they hesitate based on their linguistic limitations. They ask, “Are you fluent?” because they assume the answer will be yes, and this will confirm their suspicion that they, without fluency, wouldn’t be able to hack it in a foreign country. I think they’re letting themselves off the hook too easily.
The question riles up my inner provocateur, and provides me with the perfect opportunity to wax philosophical on the issue of fluency. Am I fluent? Yes. And no.
To the American ear, my French is “fluent.” I managed to function socially and professionally in Paris, and had a great time doing it. But when my shower exploded and the plumber came, could I discuss the ins-and-outs of water pressure and drainage with him? Definitely not (although via that experience, I learned to). While I lived in Paris, my French improved and stretched in ways I couldn’t have anticipated, and I surprised myself again and again by saying things I hadn’t realized I knew how to say—until they were coming out of my mouth. Then again, there will always be vocabulary that I don’t know, and conversations that I still can’t quite follow.
Would a native French person describe me as fluent? Maybe not. They always seem to pick up on my accent, and though I’ve often been complimented on my French, it seems there’s always an unspoken addendum: “You have very good French… (for an American).”
So when I’m asked if I’m fluent, my answer is always the same: yes and no. I now realize just how fluid language can be, and how the very notion of fluency differs from person to person and culture to culture. Living in France, I met people who spoke three, four, five or more languages. At first, that blew my perfectionist mind. How? How?! But then I realized, that’s the point: people who easily pick up languages don’t approach them with an aim to perfection. They just wing it. They learn as they go. They improvise and experiment, and they don’t worry about potentially embarrassing themselves.
And thus, they learn languages. So while the rest of us are discussing whether we’ve crossed some imaginary threshold between non-fluency and fluency, they’ve just lapped us—and learned Danish in their spare time. Of course, one can have an “ear for languages,” but more important, I think, is to have the courage for them.
Soon after I moved to Paris, I was interviewed on a French radio show about Obama’s recent election. I had no idea what some of the questions meant, so I evaded half of them and just said whatever came to mind. Did I make mistakes? Definitely. Did anyone care? No. I’m still kind of shocked that I had the youthful audacity to do that interview, but when it comes to communicating, a little bravery goes a long way.
Written by Tory Hoen for the HiP Paris Blog. Looking for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, London, Provence, or Tuscany? Check out Haven in Paris.