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.
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.