Do I speak French? Well I ought to. I studied it for ten years, clocked up a year in the South of France and am a regular visitor to Paris. But can I say with honesty, “oui, je parle français“? Not really.
When people learn that you studied languages, or lived in another country, they typically ask, are you fluent? What they don’t understand is how much time and practice is required to become fluent in a language. Fluency for me means communicating like a native. Not necessarily with perfect grammar and an undetectable accent, but that you can converse with ease, in any situation. To be fluent means that you can tell jokes and pick up (and use) the nuances of the language. This doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen sitting at a desk with a grammar book.
Another thing about language is that if you don’t use it, you lose it. It has been over ten years since I graduated with an M/A in French and Italian. It has been even longer since I spent a significant amount of time in France. While I had a certain level of fluency back then, I don’t now.
I tell myself that the reason my French is so diminished is because I have been living in another foreign country. My theory is that my French language skills have been replaced by my ability to speak Norwegian. It is true that when I find myself searching my brain for a word in French, it often presents me with the Norwegian equivalent instead.
I learned Norwegian in the way a child does: by listening, repeating and picking it up as I go along. I learned French by studying grammar and translating complicated texts. The key to fluency lies in the former. If I left Norway now, and was away for ten years, I imagine that I would retain more Norwegian than I have French. But would I still be fluent? Probably not.
People who have learned a language and lost it often like to say, “I’m rusty, but if I went back to France, it would all come flooding back.” This doesn’t happen. I’m dismayed when I can no longer muster up the word for fireplace. I may recognise it when I hear it, but other words I once knew, but used less frequently, might elude me entirely.
Since we took over the place in Paris I’ve been practicing more. My house-hunting and building vocabulary has come on in leaps and bounds. I have learned words I never knew at university, such as carrelage, plinthes, and sanibroyeur. I now know the difference between a flat sheet (drap plat) and a fitted sheet (drap housse), but the ability to chat freely escapes me. Unless I move to France and immerse myself completely, I probably won’t be fluent again. However, I’m committed to improving. The feeling of belonging somewhere is linked to the ability to communicate in the language of that place. Now that Paris has become my home away from home, I’ll make more of an effort to parler français.