Help Her! She Spoke French!

Bonjour et bienvenue.

A few months ago I started learning French via the website Duolingo.

Anyone close to me knows just how amusing this is. I have a history of bludgeoning the French language. I’ve dropped out of two French courses. Small children have made fun of me for my particularly bad pronunciation. I can never keep the conjugations for “avoir” (to have) and “etre” (to be) straight.

My husband is from Quebec and speaks lovely French. When we were visiting Montreal, strangers would address him in French and then turn to me and speak in English, as if the words “Don’t even try” were stamped on my forehead. When people spoke French around me, I was sure they were making fun of me.

And still, I’ve always wanted to learn French.

On the outside, I laughed my French language inadequacies off (most of the time). I would say things like, “I’ve been banned from speaking French,” or “I’m wanted for murder of the French language.” Ha ha.

On the inside, I would shrink to the little girl me, feeling embarrassed and stupid. One time I lost it at someone for making fun of my American pronunciation of “croissant” one too many times. I tried to just let it go. Convinced myself I just wasn’t good at learning languages. Told myself I had numerous other talents.

window to the garden

artwork by Stefan Zsaitsits

I’ve had a fear of misspelling, mispronouncing, or misdefining words orally for most of my life. I’ve always attributed it to a specific event in third grade. Spelling Bee season. Each class had a spelling bee competition, then the winners would compete at each school, then each district, and so on until the National level.

It was my first time ever participating in a spelling bee, and I was eliminated in the very first round in the very first classroom level competition. I didn’t know what a “kiwi” was. I’d never heard of one before, so I had no idea how it was spelled. Crazy that for decades later, the same feelings of humiliation, embarrassment, and worthlessness could be conjured thinking about that moment.

(Ironic that I went into language arts education. What kind of masochist was I to go into a profession that required me to know how to spell, pronounce, and define words all the time?)    

I’ve told this story to friends before; it’s simultaneously sad and funny. But for a long time my gut would feel punched all over again if anyone ever said in response: “You didn’t know what a kiwi was?”

No, I didn’t know what a kiwi was.

What I’ve learned over the years is that even though this was a real life moment, the effect I allowed it to have over me was just a story I had been telling myself, which could, in particularly vulnerable moments, spiral into a deluge of negative self talk: I’m not a good speller, I’m not good at languages, I don’t know enough, I need to know more, my vocabulary sucks, people must think I’m stupid, I’m stupid.

I know I’m not the only one who beats herself up in this manner. I’m sure everyone has stories about their talents and abilities and accomplishments, or lack there of. How many of us chastise ourselves for not being “good enough” at something, for not being “good enough” period? I think it’s a rare soul who can just be what and who they are, have the abilities or inabilities they have, and be at complete peace. But perhaps we can get closer to that peace via acceptance or by taking on that which we fear.

Last year, after years of wanting to learn to play the drums, but feeling silly for even considering it, I started taking drum lessons. I’m doing it for no other reason than because it’s fun. I don’t need to join a band, make a living from it, or even do anything beyond jam (by myself or with others). I decided this year I could take the same approach to learning French. I don’t need to teach French or read French literature or even speak to French people. I can just learn for myself.

The thing about learning new skills is that there is always a curve. Sometimes, if that skill is particularly challenging for someone, they will give up when it feels like the wheels are spinning and they’re not getting anywhere new. Sometimes with children (and some adults, I’m sure) this frustration will disguise itself in an attitude of “This is stupid,” or “I didn’t really care about this anyway.”

With drumming, there were a few months I was completely frustrated. I could not get my right hand and right foot working independently of each other. I thought I would never get the hang of it. But since I didn’t have much attachment to being a rock star, I just kept banging away for fun and to get out of my busy monkey mind for a time. And what do you know, after a while, I started to get it. It started to feel like real, actual rhythm and music.

Three months after starting my online French adventure, I’m still not very good at speaking French. I still can’t always keep the conjugations for “avoir” and “etre” straight. But I’ve found that letting go of any expectation has allowed me to be able to do it just for fun, and I’ve committed to saying the words out loud and risk the mispronunciation. Every once in a while, I get something right without even thinking, and I realize that slowly, I am beginning to understand. And for once in my life that’s good enough for me.

What do you beat yourself up for not knowing or for continuing to struggle with when it seems easier for others? Where have you given up when you felt stuck?

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YOUR WRITING WORKOUT

What wound has shaped your character’s perception of themselves? How does that hold them back from fully expressing themselves or fully participating in life? What would happen if they came to a place of self-acceptance? What if they faced their fears head on? What might they then accomplish?

TIMED WRITING GUIDELINES

Set your timer for 7 – 15 minutes per start line
(I increase the time with each start line: 7 min, 10 min, 12 min …)

When timer starts: write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

PICK FROM ANY OF THE BELOW START LINES
(use any character, doesn’t have to be your protagonist)

The wound that shaped MY CHARACTER’S fears looks like…

MY CHARACTER is still emotionally triggered whenever…

MY CHARACTER feels stuck whenever they…

MY CHARACTER must face their fears when …

Something shifts for MY CHARACTER when they begin to…

happy writing

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