on Speaking French

Added on by Taylor Smith.

Until earlier this week I had never visited a French-speaking country. This, despite the fact that I minored in French in college and had a job speaking French for about six months.

My wife and I are in Europe for a month. We left Los Angeles on June 3 and we will be back on July 2. Both of us have been to parts of Europe before—Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Austria, and Hungary for me; Germany, Czechia, Austria, and Hungary for her—but neither of us have been to France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, or England (all places on our itinerary this month).1 We have talked about doing a trip like this ever since we got married (2003). But, stuff like this is expensive, and things like school, careers, kids, and life get in the way of ideas like that. But, this year brought a lot of big things: our fifteenth (!) wedding anniversary was last December, my wife turned forty in January, and she graduated with her Master of Music degree this past May. So, there is quite a lot of stuff to celebrate, and we decided now was the time to finally make this trip happen.2

Between us, my wife is definitely the one with vacation-planning skills. Once we decided “it is time,” she got to work looking for flights, booking hotels, etc. I think we booked our flights back in August, 2018, with some hotels, etc. following not terribly long afterward. She deserves most of the credit for all of that, though she did ask me to book a handful of the logistics as a birthday gift to her back in January. By February we were done and done (almost) with all of the logistical planning.3

But, a few days ago we flew from LA to Paris and then took a train to Brussels.4 Navigating Charles de Gaulle airport was pretty tricky, especially trying to figure out how to get to our train. Eventually, we decided it was time to ask someone for help. Of course, almost everyone that works for the airlines speaks English, but I really wanted to “have a go” with trying to not look like a dumb American that expects everyone to speak English. So, I approached the guy at the Air France help desk and just launched into my question: “Je dois trouver un train à Bruxelles. Il a été réservé avec Air France.” And, he just gave me what I needed to know (en français, bien sûr). Better yet, I understood 80-ish% (the important 80%) of the stuff he said!

In December, I decided it would be a good idea for me to take something of a “refresher course” in French. So, I signed up for Conversational French 1 at my local community college (not the one where I teach, as this class wasn’t in our schedule for the Spring 2019 semester). This class was (almost) entirely in French. Before the first day of classes, it had been a good 13+ years since I had spoken French or had anyone really check in on my fluency.5 The first few days were rough; I didn’t really follow much of what the professor was saying, nor did I feel confident saying much of anything. Things got better, of course, and, by the end, I was feeling significantly more confident talking with the other students and the professor. Still, when you talk with other students or a professor, you can always fall back on English when you get stuck (“Comment dit-on [insert English word]?”), so I was still pretty nervous as arriving in Paris got closer and closer. This question was my first entrée into the world or speaking French without training wheels since 2004/5. It felt nice to have some success.

I get it that my question was relatively simple. That’s a first-year-of-high-school-French level of question. Still, it felt really nice to have that validation from an actual Parisian. Also, he might have secretly been laughing at me, but he did a good job of hiding it.



  1. We are also visiting Germany, Austria, and Czechia this time. ↩︎

  2. We also have friends that are currently living in both Leuven (Belgium) and Prague, which makes the whole idea even easier to actualize. ↩︎

  3. Some of the train specifics turned out to be more involved than we thought. We are still trying to work some of that out as we speak. ↩︎

  4. We actually thought we were booking a flight to Brussels, as the whole thing was booked via Air France and the second portion just looked like another flight at first glance. ↩︎

  5. Except for that little green owl in Duolingo. ↩︎