Sometimes you just have to write…
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.
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!