When I chose to spend a year in London instead of France, I was really worried about how that choice would affect my French. As a French major, it is, not surprisingly, incredibly important to actually be able to speak and write French, and that usually translates to studying in France for a significant period of time. I spent a summer in Paris with a host family, during which time my French improved by leaps and bounds. However, a year in London, where classes were in English, where my friends would speak English, and where I would have minimal French exposure, concerned me. Would I forget everything? Would I need to drop my French major back at school?
As it turns out, my speaking skills stuck with me! I visited Paris in October and was able to communicate effectively with shopkeepers and museum staff. But my big ‘aha’ moment was while we were in Strasbourg this spring.
We were in the train station, waiting for our train to Colmar. Siobhan and I had boarded the train but I left again with only my wallet so I could buy us a couple pastries in the 15 minutes we had before we departed. Lo and behold, just as I stepped off the escalator that took me from the platform, the fire alarm started going off.
Panicking, I tried to get back on the escalator so I wouldn’t miss my train. When I quickly asked him about the alarm, one French train guy told me I could return to my train. Unlucky for me, another French train guy popped out from the hallway right by my platform escalator and forbade me from going up. Not cool.
But here comes the cool part: I got mad at him. In French. I asked him why he let people board the platform just before I was about to. I asked him how long the evacuation would last, and when he said it could last up to 20 minutes (my train was in 15 minutes) I demanded him to let me pass because my stuff was on board, and got even angrier when he wouldn’t.
When I reluctantly went outside and squeezed myself in at the front of the evacuation crowd, I commiserated with a French mother about how annoying the whole situation was, how I could miss my train, and how all of my stuff was with my friend, whom I had no way of contacting.
Luckily the whole situation resolved itself quickly and I was able to rush back to the train. But it took me a while to realise that I survived that entire situation in French without having to stop or (perceptively) hesitate. I could converse in French while angry, without having to stop and think about my words. I could keep up with the fast-paced, stressful situation.
This was my “I’ve made it” moment with the French language. And it just made me more confident that, even when I return to school in the fall not having spoken French for several months and not having taken a French class for over a year, I have the ability to succeed. It might take a little while to get back to my original level, and I don’t think I’ll have that many angry French conversations to fuel my abilities, but that skill and confidence in my French is there. I just need to remember that when I question my French again.