Parlez-vous Anglais? (Day 64)

(photo credit: Seargeant Major Fish by Noah Katz on

We decided to take the French girl we’re hosting into Boston to see the aquarium and to eat dinner in the North End. I can’t recall exactly how it happened, but I ended up inviting another French student, who is part of the same program, to join us. We took him without the student he was staying with because of a previous commitment the American student had.

I’d never met this French boy, but from what I gathered, my daughter and our French student seemed to enjoy his company. What could go wrong?

We picked him up and headed downtown. The boy was friendly, polite, and comfortable coming with us.

It’s about a twenty-five minute ride, and by minute five, our two French students started talking and laughing. In French. From my seat, I could only see my daughter and she seemed preoccupied with her phone, looking up every so often to listen to their conversation. I tried to adjust my position so my head (my ears in particular) were pushed back, closer to the students, in hopes of picking up something of what they were saying.

Confession: I don’t speak French. I only understand very basic French, and then only if spoken in extremely slow motion.

French people speak rapidly. These two students, whom my daughter later told me were telling stories of things that had happened to them since they arrived in America, spoke so fast that I questioned briefly if they were using real words. If they weren’t laughing at the exact same points and if my daughter hadn’t told me some of what they said later, I would have been satisfied that I was right and they were speaking gibberish. Eventually, I let my mind wander to other things so their conversation became background buzz.

It struck me how ironic it was that I was frustrated by my not being able to understand what these two French students were saying. Here they were in America, with my American family, and I’m the one who feels left out of the conversation.

At dinner, the two students started up again in French. My daughter seemed to be participating in this conversation as well. My husband and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. The way a child does when her parents are talking about something over her head at the dinner table.

And then we broke into the conversation. In English.

Usually, when we have French students stay with us (we’ve done it three times before), we find ourselves having to speak slowly and frequently having to find a better way to communicate what we’ve said. Our student this year understands English far better than any student from the past. And the boy who joined us for dinner spoke and understood perhaps even better than our student did.

For the rest of the meal, except for a few moments, we spoke in English and everybody contributed to the conversation. The only real problem was that we were in a restaurant in the North End, which means a tiny, cramped, people-filled space with bad acoustics.

So a few words were lost to each of us. And it gave us something to feel frustrated about together.


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4 thoughts on “Parlez-vous Anglais? (Day 64)

  1. The French students probably enjoyed the chance to practice their English – since that is the whole point of visiting America. And yes, especially when you are new to a language, it can be very frustrating trying to understand.

    When I was learning Spanish in Ecuador, I once had dinner with my hubby, two Swiss, and one German. We were all studying Spanish. The two Swiss spoke German, but they also spoke their native Swiss dialect, a rare dialect and a coincidence that they had found each other in Quito. They were sitting side by side and exchanging the odd comment in their dialect. My hubby also speaks German, so he did some conversing in that language with the others. I only spoke English and rudimentary Spanish. As the meal went on were simultaneously speaking Spanish, English, German, and the Swiss dialect! And it was a lot of fun. 🙂

  2. Seems like European schools in generation do a pretty thorough job of teaching English as a second language to students. Whenever I visited Norway, pretty much everyone spoke excellent English. Usually they attempt to start a conversion in Norwegian because hey, it’s Norway, but as soon as you tell them you can’t understand, they switch to English mode and it’s pretty great. I’d love to learn Norwegian and go back there sometime to practice it.

    1. I love the lilt of the Norwegian accent. I wonder if a secondary speaker is able to pick that lilt up as well as the words.

So what do you think?