The Thing about Languages: Learning to be an Eternal Student

Imagine walking into a café in Japan and hearing a wave of indecipherable languages, but then, over the buzz of cryptic words, you hear the sweet sound of your native tongue.

As I write this…

two weeks have passed since I arrived à Paris, and in this time, I’ve learned one valuable lesson: MY FRENCH IS SHIIIIIIIITE! No, it really is. Even after studying la langue française for 12 years (6 of them compulsory) in school, I was not prepared for comprehending, let alone engaging in, the simplest of daily conversations.

Qu’est-ce que fokken?

The other day, I went to a birthday party for my friend whom I met in Japan and currently lives in Paris, and contrary to my expectations, it was a linguistic nightmare. I spoke French to the Japanese, and Japanese to the French, and at one point, I definitely said, “I lived in Japan for さん ans” [‘さん’ = three, ‘ans’ = years]. Although I made friends with a lovely Parisian couple who had the patience to entertain my broken French and kindly explained a few French jokes that obviously went right over my head (something about brunettes being smarter than prunes!?!), after a few hours of switching, or should I say “butchering” languages, I was ready to go home, and let’s just say that I had a pounding headache and a bruised ego for the next 24 hours.

Needless to say…

Polyglots- I can’t help but rest my chin in my hands and stare at them in amazement.

I have a newfound respect for people who can dance between multipllanguages. They are officially known as polyglots, but polyglot is such an unsexy word for such an enchanting talent. Here, my housemate, originally from Algeria, speaks four languages like it’s no big deal, and my dear friend, a diplomat for the Brazilian embassy in Paris, is adding Japanese and Russian to his already extensive collection. I can’t help but rest my chin in my hands and stare at them in amazement, like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but not as elegantly.

I love the idea of knowing multiple languages because this skill will be key to helping locals, travelers, and expats feel at home when they come to my future café, Kaeru Domicile. Yet after 12 years of studying French and 3 years fully immersed in Japanese, I am subsequently fluent in neither. I listen to French songs, watch French movies, and read French books. What the heck am I doing wrong?

During language acquisition…

comprehension (i.e., reading and listening) is only half the battle; I also need to produce (i.e., speak and write) language. However, contrary to what I ingrained into the minds  of my students whom I taught in Japan, I’m scared of making mistakes. Oh, the hypocrisy!

And. I. Froze. Like a deer in headlights!

I vividly remember dining out with my family when I was around 12 years old, and upon learning that the server was from Québec, which is the French part of Canada, and after several seconds of fawning over the “foreign” unicorn, my mother chirped something about how much her daughter loved French. Naturally, the server turned to me and asked Survival French 101: Comment ça va? – And. I. Froze. Like a deer in headlights!

Obviously, confidence in using languages doesn’t come easily for everyone, but it’s not impossible. In order to learn, one must be fearless enough to make mistakes. So in the name of inevitable failure, I’m proposing a list of personal language goals, and doing so to the public thus keeping myself accountable.

By the end of my 3-month visa, I will:

  1. Attend a party and hold a conversation entirely in French, and then, another one completely in Japanese.
  2. Confidently engage in daily conversations with local Parisians.
    • order at a restaurant/cafe/bar
    • have mundane conversations with fellow commuters
  3. Interview a café owner in French.
  4. Learn 100 new kanji.
  5. Begin learning another language: German, Italian, or Portuguese.

By the end of this year, I will:

  1. Confidently converse in French.
  2. Comprehend basic German, Italian, and Portuguese.
  3. Pass the N3 JLPT.

12459832_10153834053969539_711520448_nFor the sake of learning and of my future patrons, I want to and I WILL achieve these goals because I want them to feel like they’ve returned home when they enter the sanctuary of Kaeru Domicile. It will be challenging, but as my Russian couchsurfing host once said,

“The easiest way to learn a language is to sit down and learn the damn language.”


As always, thank you for reading and joining me on this #internationalcoffeejourney

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