For me, learning language has two key components:
1. Being able to understand the world around you.
2. Being able to interact with the world by finding out information, contributing information or just making jokes and sharing your personality.
So far, understanding the world around me has improved dramatically over the past few months of being in Paris, as expected. Understanding the conversations around you feels like the auditory equivalent of the world coming into focus. The world is much more focussed now.
Interaction with the world, however, takes a LOT more effort and learning. As such, it often feels like there are several parts of my brain. The primary, English-speaking part (Me), and the part that interacts in a foreign language. While the primary part of my brain is mostly consistent in its playfulness and interactiveness with the universe, the French Part of My Brain (FPoMB) seems more temperamental. Sometimes they play well together. Sometimes, not so much.
Months ago, when I first returned to Paris, they had this exchange:
Me: Oh hey there, French Part of My Brain, long time no see! We used to be so close!
FPoMB: Oui. Qu’est-ce que tu veux? (“Yes. What do you want?”)
Me: Well I know we’ve drifted terribly, and it’s been over 12 years since you had a proper French lesson… but now that we’re in Paris, it’d be super awesome if I could return to that state of near-fluency we were at.
Me: I’ll give you more French lessons!
Me: I’ll immerse you in the culture!
Me: I’ll ply you with French wine?
FPoMB: Peut-être. (“Maybe.”)
And, admittedly, after a drink or two, the French does come out more easily, though I don’t rely on it.
More recently, since I’m understanding more of what’s happening around me in the world, the urge to interact with it is much stronger. Especially telling jokes. I love making people laugh. And I honestly believe that a good indicator of your strength at a language is whether you can make jokes in it. So, these days, it feels instead as though there’s me thinking up all these witty and informative things to share with the world because I understand more, and the FPoMB is there as a gatekeeper.
On good days, the interaction is like this:
Me: Oh, I understood what that person just said. I know how I could respond, potentially in a funny fashion!
FPoMB: Si tu veux. Vas y. (“If you like. Go ahead.”)
Me: Yay! (I run out to play and frolic in the land of successful interaction).
On other days, it is a bit more like this:
Me: Oh, I understood what just happened! Lemme out and play!
Me: But I could make this super-funny joke, it’d be awesome!
FPoMB: Non. Le moment est passé. (“No, the moment has passed.”)
Me: Aww, but pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease? I want to be out there! (Face is pressed up against the glass, whimpering sounds commence.)
FPoMB: J’ai dit non! Tu ne passeras pas! (“I said no! You shall not pass!” FPoMB is Gandalf-esque, dressed in a cloak, dust is swirling, and the staff in her hand is slammed down at the appropriate moment.)
So, yeah. To my French friends reading this, when we’re talking and I have a blank expression on my face (or perhaps one of frustration as I try to think of how to phrase something), the above is most likely happening in my head. I thank you for your patience.