Anna Sadovskaya: Speaking the language of bilingual difficulties

By Anna Sadovskaya, Daily Fine Arts Columnist
Published October 22, 2013

“Est-ce que je peux prendre deux chocolat-au-pains et …”

I clamp up. I can see the name handwritten on the golden card. I can read that. I know how to pronounce it. I know how to do this.

Four years of classes, two in AP and six weeks in the actual country, and I still clamp up when speaking French.

“Um … qu’est-ce que c’est ca?” The girl behind the counter sighs and points to the sweet raisin bread. I nod.
“It’s sweet raisin bread,” she says in crisp English, no panic attack in sight.

“Ah. Oui, merci. Je veut deux, s’il vous plait.” Even though I’ve been caught red handed as a foreigner, I keep up the charade. Maybe it’s dedication to learning, maybe just embarrassment, but I leave the boulangerie with an “a demain, merci,” as if I was a born Parisian. The store girl’s “goodbye” stings.

Foreign languages had always “come easily to me,” in high school in that it would only take a quick glance-over of the material for most of my exams and quizzes. I would expect an A in both Spanish and French, and considered the two my easiest subjects.

In my little 18-year-old bubble, my pronunciation was magnificent. Grammar? Acceptable. Writing? Did anyone else use “coup-de-grace” in their paper?

Fast-forward three years, and there I was, standing in the middle of a bakery, in Paris, two minutes away from the Eiffel Tower, speaking as if I had learned French from a cassette tape on the flight over.

Learning a new language is easy: Sitting down with a foreign book and dictionary in hand is easy. Memorizing conjugations and tenses is time consuming, but ultimately, easy. You already have a basic concept of language — you know words, you know how to formulate thoughts and feelings with them and doing this in another language is strange, sometimes complicated, but manageable.

Speaking a new language, however, is difficult. It’s an increasingly frustrating relationship between your mind, your tongue and your memory. Too afraid to make a mistake and say something stupid, most (myself included) opt out of saying anything. But there’s no point to learning a new language without actually speaking it — and there’s no better way to learn to speak than to have a conversation with a native.

I knew all this first hand. My Russian would improve markedly anytime I visited St. Petersburg, just by being around others who spoke it — being constantly immersed in it.

So when I arrived in France, I was prepared to take on the baguette-loving land with my magnificent pronunciation in tow.

Less than two hours later, I was silently eating a delicious meal, smiling and nodding and whispering questions in English to my poor, bilingual host.

Eventually, I warmed up to the idea of whipping out my (not surprisingly) poor French. Words that I had thought I was saying correctly, I wasn’t. What I thought I was reading correctly, I wasn’t. But getting those mistakes out of the way made room for improvement. Not as noticeable as my Russian — I’m bilingual, and in Russia, I forget the English word for something — but enough to count. I even had a two-hour long conversation on topics ranging from coincidences to fate to cooking. I was powering through my infinite ineptitude to come across the point of learning any new language: to connect with others. To speak to people whom I wouldn’t otherwise be able to speak with.