Sometimes you just have to write…

Parlez-vous français?

The foreign language dictionary section of our home book collection.

The foreign language dictionary section of our home book collection.

Il y a trente ans je parlais français courament. That means (I think) that thirty years ago I spoke French fluently.

Clearly I don’t anymore, and that’s extremely frustrating. I’ve been here in the Netherlands for 16 years, and it’s taken me tremendous effort and emotional energy to learn Dutch to a halfway decent level of fluency.

That’s great, I know. It’s important for immigrants to learn the local language. The problem is that the more Dutch I know, the less French I know.

I initially learned French starting in junior high school, and added Spanish once I was at high school. By the end of my high school career, I had finished five years of French and five years of Spanish (A wonderful Spanish teacher helped me and a few other students with extra lessons so we could skip years.)

In college I took another couple of French courses and a Spanish course at one point as well. In my junior year, fed up with studying, I took a semester off and worked as an au pair for a family outside of Lyon.

That experience took my French to the next level: I became truly fluent. I still had an American accent, of course, but I could follow a university level history course, and I read Zola’s Germinal from cover to cover. I could have long complicated conversations over Côtes du Rhone in a smoke-filled café for hours at a time, as only a 20-year-old can do.

The next year, after I went back and finished college, I joined the Peace Corps. I wrote on my application that I was fluent in French in the hopes that I’d get assigned to some French-speaking country in West Africa. Instead, I ended up in English-speaking Malawi, teaching French. Once I left the Peace Corps, though, my French began to fade through disuse.

With the progress I made in French, my Spanish fell behind. Eventually, years later, I went to Guatemala for two weeks of intensive private Spanish lessons, which helped a lot of it to come back.

The motto “Use it or lose it” comes to mind here. I never used Spanish again, so I lost it again.

But I don’t feel sad about Spanish; I was never fluent. It’s the loss of French fluency I mourn.

I have been to France from time to time since we moved here, but in every encounter with a French speaker I am frustratingly tongue-tied.

Here’s what happens in my head when I try to communicate even the simplest thought in French: to order some food or ask directions.

  1. The first thing that pops into my head is the entire thought in Dutch. Yes, I’m aware that’s an indication that my Dutch is quite good. I don’t think in English when I’m trying to speak French; I think in Dutch.
  2. I translate the Dutch sentence into French. It doesn’t sound right because the word order is wrong. And I can’t retrieve some of the words in French quickly, so my mind hovers over those words for a while.
  3. I start to speak the sentence. This goes one word at a time as I first check each word before I actually blurt it out to see if it’s a) in the right language and b) in the right place in the sentence. This makes for a.  Very. Choppy. Slow. Sentence.  
  4. If my husband is there, he interrupts me and says the sentence for me. Rather than being annoyed, I’m relieved that I can abandon the effort. Or: I eventually get the sentence out, but only if the listener is patient enough to wait. Otherwise, he or she interrupts me and tries to complete the sentence for me, so that all I need to do is say “Oui” or “Non” gratefully.

This is so annoying! Everyone I’ve told this to says that if I went and spent some time in France, it would come back to me. I hope they’re right, because I’ll be spending some time there this summer.

But what I want to know is how do people who are multi-lingual do it? I don’t seem to have room in my brain for more than two languages. It’s as if there are two dedicated language compartments, so if they’re both occupied and I want to learn a third language, my brain has to evict one from its compartment before the new one can move in. Do other people have more spaces for languages in their heads? Or have they figured out some sort of trick to keep the languages from displacing each other?


To any multi-linguals reading this: how do you do it? Please add a comment below!


5 comments on “Parlez-vous français?

  1. Phoebe
    July 12, 2013

    What an interesting post. I’m fascinated by language and multilingualism. I live in France and have 2 bilingual kids but don’t consider myself bilingual. Fluent yes, bilingual no. But I remember when I was living in Vietnam and trying to learn Vietnamese (excrutiatingly hard!) every foreign word I’d ever learnt for a particular word would come back to me while searching for the Vietnamese word. At that time I barely spoke French and had high school German but I’d drag out a German word that I hadn’t thought of for 10 years while trying to speak VNese! I think I’m like you, there’s only room for 2 languages in my brain.

  2. Roy A. Ackerman, PhD, EA @ Cerebrations.biz
    July 12, 2013

    I think that’s the issue! I think in two languages- Hebrew or English. When i speak French, it’s a conversion from Hebrew in my brain- which means that when i am short a word, I drop in one from Hebrew- which confounds the listener. (At least if I had dropped an English term, there’s a likelihood they would understand the statement!)

  3. Rachel Heller
    July 12, 2013

    I know just what you mean, Phoebe! About the only time I can summon up any Spanish is when I’m looking for a word in Dutch! And you too, Roy! I sometimes drop English words into Dutch sentences, and I’m not always aware I’m doing it. But I always notice it when someone else does it! Fascinating, how our brains work! Thanks for visiting!

  4. Delia @ Blog Formatting
    July 13, 2013

    I love this post, Rachel! Ever since I moved to Canada, English comes very easily to me, to the point that in my brain, words are coming mostly in English and not so great in Romanian, my native tongue.

    I also know a bit of French but have not practiced it so I’m thinking that’s the reason why I don’t speak French very well. But it may have to do with not having space for another language in my brain, just like you, LOL!

  5. Caroline J
    July 15, 2013

    Yikes folks – I can only just speak English (and I’m welsh). Sorry to say Rachel that I don’t have this issue, but I would love to be able to speak Italian. Ciao!

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This entry was posted on July 12, 2013 by in Life in Holland and tagged , , , .
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