Last spring, I went to Paris—finally. I had been wanting to visit that storied city for many, many years, but circumstances had forced several changes of plan and cancellations. I was starting to think that I wasn’t meant to be in Paris. But I got there! And after waiting so long, I was determined to make the absolute most out of my experience—and that included speaking French.
As a Canadian, I am surrounded by French and am very familiar with the language, but I don’t use it enough to consider myself fluent. I can read, write and understand it, but speaking it is another matter. This isn’t uncommon. Speaking an unfamiliar language can be an intimidating and nerve-wracking experience, especially for someone who tends to be introverted. I have always been worried about how dumb I would sound, or how annoying I would be, struggling to spit out something intelligible in a different language. I know that a lot of people feel that way. And I also know that usually the people you are speaking to are kind, patient, helpful folk who are happy that you are trying to use their language and are more than willing to help you—this is something I tell the ESL students I tutor all the time. I also tell them that the only way to learn a language is to use it, no matter how scary that prospect. So, on this trip, I needed to listen to my own advice.
I arrived in Paris and forced myself to start speaking French right away. As often happens, the people I was talking to took pity on me and answered in English, but I struggled on in French. I knew I had to keep going or it wouldn’t get any easier. So, I checked into the hotel in French, I ordered my first lunch in a bistro in French, I bought my first baguette and other dinner items in French… and eventually, it was almost easy. But I knew I wasn’t going to be there long enough to reach the “instant translation” stage—when you don’t need to think about what you’re going to say; the right words are just there. Or so I thought. My shining moment came when my daughter and I were searching for gloves (because it was so much colder than we had expected it to be), and in a busy, little gift shop, finally getting the proprietor’s attention, I blurted out, “Avez vous les gants?” and scored a pair of wool gloves for my kid. Somewhere in the dark reaches of my brain lingered that French worksheet on clothing from grade 2, and it came surging forward when needed. I felt like a native—a feeling that lasted for about 15 minutes until I tried to order lunch, but still, I was pretty proud of myself.
We can have the same triumphs in our own first languages too. As an editor, I help writers use English to its full extent, in order to communicate their interesting, beautiful and sometimes complex ideas. This often involves rearranging words and phrases to maximize clarity, or refining punctuation so that a long sentence makes sense from beginning to end (I work with a lot of academics—they can pack quite a bit into one sentence), or suggesting different words to avoid repetition of the same vocabulary. Good writing makes for good reading, good speaking makes for happy listening; and we have so many tools at our disposal in our language, it’s a shame not to use them as much as we can.
I’m a very avid reader, and have collected a large number of words and styles over the years for my own use. I try to utilize them whenever I can. Even in conversation, I edit myself, making sure that my speech is diverse and expressive. This practice has rubbed off on my daughters. They write and converse in the same way, using their language to its full potential. One of them, however, was criticized for this in first-year university; she was told that she shouldn’t use so many “big words”. I found this criticism disappointing. I’m sure there were other comments that could have been made about her work, so why focus on vocabulary, especially when it was used properly? Why discourage a young person from being expressive? Why encourage the use of mundane language? These are questions that can be posed about many forms of communication, from the news to social media to how we talk about our day when we get home. Why settle for using the same words and styles again and again? Why limit ourselves?
We sometimes tell upset children who are yelling or crying to “use your words.” It’s advice we should continue to bide throughout our lives. We know that the only way to achieve fluency in a new language is to use it, every chance we get. But we can also strive for fluency in our first language, using the thousands of words and many different forms that are available to us. This will improve and enhance our communication with each other, whether it be written or verbal. And what we get out of that will be much more exciting than a nice pair of French gloves.