Language immersion is a funny thing. If you are really going to do it, you have to leave yourself in one language to find your voice in another. It's primal in a way, consciously discarding the protection of one's ability to communicate in her native tongue. Any other way is just dipping a toe in the water.
In her memoir “When in French: Love in a Second Language,” Lauren Collins explores the idea of what it means to truly immerse oneself in a foreign language. Collins’ poetic description of the unconscious life preserve we make of our native tongue hit the nail on the head:
“Language, as much as land, is a place. To be cut off from it is to be, in a sense, homeless.”
It’s true that learning a second language can be a daunting task. Words are often mentally cut and pasted haphazardly together, that by the time they leave one's mouth the construction is so rough around the edges no one is quite sure what to make of it. “That was supposed to be French, n’est ce pas?”
During college and while studying abroad in Paris, I was often stopped in the métro by someone asking for directions in hurried French. As I mentally began cutting and pasting, inevitably the Frenchman (or woman) would show mercy on me, “parlez-vous anglais?”
For a time, instead of dwelling on my fumbling French, I took solace in the fact that at the very least I appeared French enough to merit the asking of directions. (It's a safe bet that when asking for directions, the guy in cargo shorts, tennis shoes, and white tube socks is probably not your guy. I’m just saying.) In my case, I was dressing the part of a lead role, but I had no lines.
After the third or fourth time, the Frenchman who fell victim to my exasperation was in retrospect much kinder to me than I probably deserved. He chuckled when I shot him the side eye at his mentioning of anglais, but then he paused and in slow methodical French he said,
Non. Tu as raison. Pourquoi vivre à Paris si tu comptes parler anglais? Immerge toi. Bientôt tu chanteras en Français!
(No. You're right. Why live in Paris if you are going to speak English? Immerse yourself. Soon you will be singing in French!)
While the singing never happened, and not for lack of trying on my part (in French or English), I dove in, even when I struggled to stifle my American voice in search of the French one. The pressures of perfection if I didn't would render me mute.
What's the past tense of run? Is this vegetable feminine or masculine? Does my accent really sound less French and more Hungarian? Where is Hungary? Papa can you hear?
On the last day of the internship I had while abroad, I was stopped by a colleague that, to put it nicely, was a tolerable human being. “You know, when you first started, I told everyone I thought you were from Hungary. But, I'm impressed. You sound more French than me, and that should mean something to you because I do not compliment people often.” Like I said, he was tolerable.
Either way, I put the compliment in my back pocket as a reminder. There are worse things than a Hungarian French accent. You could be dipping your toe in the water of a second language too afraid to dive in and get wet. For that matter, there’s nothing better than proving to yourself that you can swim with the best of them.
While a four-month stint or a trip to Paris is not always possible, thankfully there are a slew of online resources that can bring France to you. No plane ticket required.
Whether you are fluent, need to brush up on your high school French, or learning for the first time, these are some of our favorite ways to immerse ourselves in the French language and culture!
App: Duolingo is the best app for learning a new language on the go. Even if fluency is not your aim, it stretches your mind to make room for new words and remind you of all those verb conjugations you learned in high school.
Instagram: @Frenchwords is one of our favorite IG accounts, highlighting words you'll actually use, slang and other sayings to keep your French fresh, and chock full of quotes that speak to us.
Listen: You already have Spotify on your phone, turn off Beyoncé for a day and explore French artists like Christine and the Queens, La Femme,Vanessa Paradis, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Francois & The Atlas Mountains.
Watch: Netflix has a whole list of foreign films. Fine tune your listening comprehension with Breathe, Intouchables, Girlhood, Two Days One Night, or Amelie.
Get out there: Practicing with others is the best way to master a language, and if a trip to Paris isn't feasible, bring the Parisians to you. Check your local library or favorite coffee shop. French conversation groups generally welcome all levels and often meet weekly. Our local library is where you can find us practicing our French with a little wine and cheese on the side!
Inquiring minds want to know. What ways do you enjoy learning and practicing a second language?
Written by: Maryam Autry