One of my Dakar friends is Hungarian. She writes articles in Hungarian, speaks to her family in Hungarian, etc., but is married to an American guy and works in an English-speaking environment. We were driving home from work together last week and I asked her how long it took for her to be fluent in English.
Her answer: she doesn’t feel fluent. And trust me when I say this gal’s English is – to me, anyway – pretty perfect, just laced with a cute Hungarian accent.
So, my fluency with French? Er, middling by my standards. And by my friend’s, perhaps an Atlantic Ocean away.
When we first landed in Dakar last summer (!), the French I’d studied throughout high school and college seemed gone. I had many, many bang-my-head-on-a-wall moments when I just couldn’t understand what someone was saying. I was terrified to use French because it’d all seeped out of my brain during five post-college years of non-use.
But today, someone at work overheard me speaking French to a Senegalese person and asked me later if I’d grown up speaking two languages. HA! She must have heard a tiny snippet of something I was saying or pronouncing correctly, because my skills are NOT that high. I felt good, though, getting a little confirmation my French has come a long, long way in a year. Everything I studied has gradually resurfaced and I’m always learning new words and phrases.
Language is such a fascinating, funny thing. If I’m speaking to my best Senegalese friend, I’d say my fluency level is good. We have a genuine friendship full of great conversation and I can speak quickly and my brain stops translating everything from English to French before it comes out of my mouth. I just talk, and sometimes it takes a few minutes to fully switch back to English after we have lunch together.
If I’m talking to a stranger or with a work colleague, though, my fluency drops. Perhaps it’s a change in accent (French is not most Senegalese people’s first language; it could be Wolof, Pular, Mandinke, etc.) or just nerves, but I trip over my vocabulary and ask for certain things to be repeated, especially large numbers spoken very quickly.
My French-speaking struggles, challenges and goals in Senegal:
- Better listening comprehension. It’s always easier for me to speak than to understand. I want these two things to be equal (even if it means they’re equally bad, heh).
- Wider use of verb tenses. I overuse the simple past tense and avoid the conditional (i.e., “If I were you, I would go to Madrid”) entirely.
- Improving my accent. Back-throat-rolling R’s? No. I don’t try. I’m so focused on getting my vocab and verbs correct that I’ve foregone an accent.
- Using correct phrases. Sometimes I translate an English phrase too directly instead of doing as the French would do. For instance, today I made a hotel reservation. The French say, literally, “I would like to take a reservation,” instead of making a reservation. I got it wrong. Little mistakes like that raise my “not fluent!” flag.