Like Paris in Springtime

Recently my husband and I went to visit some friends in France. I haven’t been there for a while, yet as a Canadian I had taken French in school many, many years ago, and I was supposed to have the linguistic basic tools. I realized that I needed to communicate and I know how the mind works… while it seems like the perfect combination, the question remains, how did I do?

Well, the experience I had reinforced many of my perceptions about the subconscious mind, our ability to not only learn but create habits that may inhibit our continued learning and recall. I write this so you can learn from me…

We are Absorbent Beings

Having lived in the US and Singapore for the last twenty years or so has, strangely enough, not added to my French vocabulary. Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, Spanish, maybe, but French, non. Yet when I was a wee thing growing up in Toronto, we needed to take the other official language – French. So, if what I’ve been saying about the subconscious mind is true, then all of the information and vocabulary I learned many years ago is still stored in my grey matter.

Did it? I can honestly say that it was a yes… and a no. Yes, surprisingly many words I didn’t know I knew spilled forth from my lips in conversation. Was I pleasantly surprised? In many ways I was… except for a few things. And these foibles are areas that I discovered were preventing me from fluency and ease.

Worst Student Ever 

Many years ago I spent time in Paris to learn the language and culture of the country. I discovered literary genius, composers, artists… and the complexity of the language outside of the context of an English-only city where I first began my ‘ah, bey, says’, n’est pas?

I felt fairly good about my understanding in lectures and could function reasonably well in stores and public transport and the other necessities of day-to-day life. However, when I went back to the room I rented in the apartment of my landlady, the “Madame”, I was told, en francais, how poor my vocabulary was and how my grammar was horrible. In fact, I believe I was told that I must be the worst student in my class.

Now I realize that many people were faced with this during their highly impressionable youth (and I work with people to release them from these misperceptions of the past), yet I had never really experienced this before.  I believed myself to be a quick study, and able to grasp concepts and accents with aplomb. So I was taken aback – and reacted to this in a flight, rather than fight, way. I ended up staying away from the apartment as long as possible and creeping in to avoid negative comments being thrown my way. I finished my course, I said adieu to my landlady, and left the country. Done. Finis.

Off with Her Head! (or mind)

Many years later, I returned to the country with a slightly rusty set of tools and an English-speaking traveling companion. So I was the linguistic heavy-hitter here. I read the signs, got us checked into the hotel, and began our touring of the city of light. And then it happened, I froze, my words escaped me and I was stuck in a language no-man’s land… until my husband spoke English to the woman who responded in kind. Was the conversation more complex than the others or was it something else?

The subconscious mind links efficiently (or subversively, depending on your standpoint) and I realized that I had trouble speaking with women who were older than me. It was as though the ghost of the Madame floated around saying “you can’t speak well” and the spell was cast so I couldn’t. It seemed that when ‘she’ got into my mind, I went generally blank. Mitch was surprised that I had this problem with a language I love (he mentioned usually when I said I wasn’t so great at something I was lying, but this time…). It confirmed that when we are over-stressed that our subconscious filing system gets out of whack and makes recall a lot harder. That the positive or negative feedback we get when we are open and vulnerable while learning can affect us in our lives down the road.

Perfectionism vs the Big Easy

What’s the point of communication? To be understood? That depends and it’s a great idea to review your motivations, especially when you are revisiting old learnings or unearthing past hobbies or patterns. I know that until I reflected on my reactions I didn’t realize that I wanted to be the best, most accurate, foreign French-speaker in Paris. Why? Because I’m good at a lot of things (ok , I’m extremely poor at a couple things, but in parts I’m genius) and I felt that speaking in English (which would have lowered my stress, filled in some incomplete vocabulary etc) was tantamount to failure. And mistakes increased my stress level, which increased my mistakes, which increased my… you get the picture.

Meanwhile my husband Mitch spoke to everyone in English (even though he can read and understand some French) – and he understood when people wouldn’t speak to him in English, but he complemented people profusely on their linguistic ability when they spoke in his mother-tongue. Did he expect everyone to change their language for him? No. But he realized that he wanted to communicate and the best way for him to do so was to use the language he knew best. Be right or be happy? Sometimes we need to cut ourselves some slack as we (re)learn and grow. I’m looking forward to that for our next trip to France (but I’m revisiting my vocabulary and French language learning books in the meantime). Maybe we can still aim for both right and happy?


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