The report card
The goal was to get by every social interaction without using English and in an attempt to be somewhat objective, I'm going to document and grade each interaction I had as successful or unsuccessful.
- Arrived at Gare du Nord station feeling pretty good about my French. no doubt buoyed by understanding the French announcements on board the Eurostar train. I immediately tried to buy a tourist transport pass ('il s'appelle Paris Visite'). Sans succès. Not only did the guard not understand me, he immediately pointed me towards the information desk and said "tomorrow morning, they speak English". Welp, a humbling start.
- Bought a bottle of water, but before I could ask the cashier how much ("Combien ça coûte?") he told me the price in English.
- Checked in to the hotel speaking French ("J'ai une réservation ici"). SUCCESS. By this time it was pretty late and I was exhausted from travelling, so I packed my French in and just wandered around outside.
Verdict: 1 successful, 1 unsuccessful. An interesting and humbling start. I guess you can never be reminded too often that language learning in real life is a completely different game to the textbook.
- Published my Part 2 post in the morning.
- Buying transport tickets, attempt 2. This time I channeled my inner Dad and decided to buy my train ticket to the airport in advance. And ... success! "Je voudrais deux tickets, un pour Paris Visite, deux jours, un à trois. Deux pour Charles de Gaulle demain en train. Avec espèces s'il vous plaît". Interestingly, I had no idea what the station officer said back to me, which is a theme I'll come back to later.
- Had 3 meals with 6 waiter interactions. Managed to pass myself off as French in 3 of them, with everything from asking for tap water ("une carafe d'eau") to reading fancy dish orders straight off the menu. 2 of the interactions required me to clarify things in English, and in 1 interaction the waiter assumed I was a tourist and spoke to me in English.
- Saw the Eiffel Tower and various other attractions such as Arc de Triomphe and Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Yes, I do try and leave some time for fun tourist things too.
Verdict: 6 interactions, 4 successful, 1 unsuccessful. Some absolutely beautiful Parisien sights as well.
- Checked out of my hotel in the morning, and realised as I spoke to the receptionist that I didn't know how to describe checking out or storing my baggage to pick up later in French. Well, English it was then.
- Today was Louvre day. I was successful in all 3 of my interactions; showing my ticket to the guard ("J'ai un ticket for une heure"), purchasing a quick takeaway coffee and snack from the museum cafe ("Un petit café et un croissant à emporter, avec espèces s'il vous plaît"), and asking for directions to the exit ("Excusez-moi, où est la sortie? Merci"). Oh and the art was mighty impressive, too.
- Grabbed some dinner from a French bistro that had lots of tourists eating there, so it wasn't surprising that I was spoken to in English. Then checked out some shops where the only thing I said was I'm just looking, thanks ("Je regarde, merci") before heading back to the hotel to grab my bags and head to the airport.
- Took the train to the airport. I then realised I had no idea how to check in my bags in French and wasn't about to risk them over a mistranslation so I defaulted to English.
Verdict: 4 successful, 2 unsuccessful. A mixed bag and at this point I was starting to see an overall pattern. I was able to converse with basic phrases to get by with the necessities, but listening and carrying deeper conversations proved too difficult.
I counted 9 successful, 4 unsuccessful interactions for an overall success rate of 69%. Yes I'm aware it's hardly a scientific study, but given that I had a week to prepare I'm pretty happy with these results. Given that I'm still a beginner, it just goes to show that you can still revive your past language learning in a practical and fulfilling way.
Of course, the best thing about language learning is being able to connect on a deeper level with other human beings. To get to that level of language competence will take a lot more than 1 week of intense study.
3 reflections on my 3-part crash course series
So with this intensive French adventure all wrapped up, here are 3 pertinent things I've learnt from crash coursing, immersion and the beauty of language learning in general.
Immersion is the ultimate language crash course
Immersion is great because you learn the essentials of a language (the tailored part) and you learn quickly (the crash course part) by real-life trial and error. My observations about immersion from my time in Hong Kong held true from 3 days in France. Lots of chances to listen to local conversations, lots of "Excusez-moi"s and "Pardon"s as I navigated Paris' public transport, and lots of reading: local signs, advertisements, newspapers, shop names, etc. The real-time feedback on your spoken French by native speakers.
In an immersive social interaction, you have actual stakes at play because what you want depends on your ability to ask for it in your language. Nothing you could ever try from a textbook, online resource or language learning app will ever replace the opportunity you get with immersion. So one thing I've learnt is to never default to English if you absolutely can avoid it. In fact, I think it's even worth doing a quick Google Translate just to make sure you have the chance to learn and practice in your target language. The caveat to this as you might have noticed above, is that some people may still speak to you in English. That was certainly my experience and you do have to read the room a little and not force your target language onto an interaction.
'Baseball card' analysing different languages
Did you ever collect football or baseball cards as a kid? As an aspiring polyglot, I'd find it interesting to plot my skills in different languages just like those cards. For example, let's break down language learning in terms of 1) fundamental language rules (grammar, tense conjugations, etc.), 2) the spoken language (speaking and listening) and 3) the written language (reading and writing). My skill ratings would vary between languages, for example in French I find the written language much easier than the spoken language, and within spoken language listening particularly difficult. In contrast, in Cantonese my listening is my strong point but my written language knowledge is almost non-existent. I think having this sort of analytical awareness can be really helpful when learning things so I'll definitely make a feature post on this in the future.
The beauty of language learning outside of just language learning
I don't write about why I love learning languages too often, but this is part of the reason why. I've realised that language learning serves as both a source of gratitude and accomplishment at the same time.
Every time I find myself in a place where English isn't the default language, it always reminds me how fundamental language and communication is to the human experience. In Australia, I can go anywhere and buy anything I need in an exact quantity, brand, colour and price range while having a pleasant chat about my day. In France, every one of those things is an extra effort, moment of uncertainty, or cause of frustration. Practicing gratitude is very topical at the moment and while it's not orthodox, I've found language learning to be a great way to do that.
On the flip side, the struggle of learning languages leads to so much satisfaction when you finally get it right. The great thing about it too is that you can celebrate any scale of getting it right, from pronouncing a single word correctly to having a 10-minute conversation with a stranger.
Well, in true chaotic Humphrey style, it's time to pack away my French for a while for travels elsewhere. Keep an eye out on WIP as I put the focus on Spanish and Mandarin! Then once I'm back in Australia (around a month from the time of this post) it'll be time to consolidate and start building my current 4 language WIPs towards an intermediate, conversational level.