To “Home” a Voice

My first month abroad was met with much of my own hesitation when it came to going out of the house. Actually, I do love being out and about—cafes, window shopping, exploring, but speaking another language can be terrifying and embarrassing. Like a few other study abroad students I’ve talked to, I construct a phrase in my head and replay it over and over, but when I have to produce a sound, what comes out it not nearly what I practiced so pathetically.

For example, every day on my way home from the tram, I pick up two baguettes called “flocalines” from the local boulangerie. “Deux flocalines,” I tell myself before saying it out loud. “Deux flocalines.” It really should not be that hard.

Phonetically: [døflokalin]

Realistically: [blablabla]

The lady at the front looks at me. “Deux?” she verifies with two fingers.

“Oui,” I nod.

For a month, I would practice the two words in my head over and over again before I reached the front of the line, psyching myself out. And each time, it was less and less painful. One day, for Madri Gras, when the staff dressed up in costumes, I even had a small conversation. I walked away smiling, warm baguettes in hand.

It’s hard to see progress without some kind of removal. At the moment, I am traveling back to Bordeaux from a weekend trip in a town called Biarritz, twenty minutes north of the Spanish border. While there, a friend and I were relying on GPS and physical maps to get us from our hotel, to the city center and around, as any tourist would. But traveling back from Biarritz, from a town I have never seen before, to Bordeaux, where I’ve lived for over a month now, I feel like I’m going back home, or at least my home here in France. By removing myself from Bordeaux for a weekend, I now see how familiar Bordeaux has become. It gives me hope for discovering more in next four months I have here.

I’m starting to see improvement over dinner conversations as well, and I think this is also due to the “removal-to-see-progress” effect. I live with a host family: parents and two daughters (one who is currently abroad). However, a week ago, a new study abroad student joined our household. She is a sweetheart from Japan who has been learning French for a short period of time, so naturally, conversation is still a challenge. Suddenly, I was no longer the new student at the table. The shift in roles was, in itself, a removal. At this time, I noticed that in comparison to one word answers (my comfortable choice of answer a month ago), I was able to recount stories with more detail. (Don’t go thinking that I’m some French genius. I make silly mistakes constantly, and six-year-olds would laugh if they heard me speak). But until there was a shift in the dynamic, I did not notice myself actually improving.

I wonder if the lady at the boulangerie has been noticing anything different. For her it might mean nothing, but for me, it means the world: to home a voice in a town of foreign sounds and to see progress through removal.

Biarritz, France

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4 comments

  1. Fei · February 19, 2013

    I know how amazing this removal feeling is! 😉

  2. isjawjaw · February 19, 2013

    beautiful

  3. Fille Pompette · February 19, 2013

    I totally had this experience too! I studied abroad in France through Berkeley (lived at a homestay) and even lived there an additional year, and I totally had a hell of a time pronouncing things correctly on the fly (especially at the dinner table, can be so intimidating), but let me just say that a bit (or a lot) of wine sure helps!

  4. heather.G · February 24, 2013

    I think you should coin that term! you could start studying it… if you wanted to. You could research it, write a thesis on it when you get back! I am so proud to be friends with you.

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