My ESL students at home in Urbana all say the same thing: “I learned English at school/university in my country for X years. I thought I could manage basic English. But, I get here and I feel so stupid because I understand nearly nothing, and when I speak most people can’t understand me”—and countless variations on this theme.
Well, I now completely understand their feelings and frustrations. I am humbled.
I took French for 3 years at high school and 3 years at university many years ago (no need to say how many!). I didn’t delude myself that I spoke French well, as since then I’ve hardly had a chance to use or practise the language. In the past 10 or so years, Rod and I have visited France a number of times, but as tourists in mostly tourist areas. And we managed on basic French.
So, when we came to live here in Paris for 6 months, I thought I’d get by, with a bit more help from my dictionary and the course book, and a crash “conversation exchange” with one of my French students. But, I realize that turns out to be a misguided idea.
Now we have to deal with health issues, how to change a PIN at the bank, how to register at the local Prefecture, how to get a train ticket from a small station when none of the machines are working and the clerk isn’t authorized to sell tickets, how to ask for something at the local market when I don’t know the French word and it’s not in the dictionary.
We’ve been here for almost 3 months now (with a 3-week break in China), and I feel dumber every day. Listening and understanding when the locals speak to me are my biggest challenges, and I have to make an effort some days not to be a hermit, just staying in my little orbit or venturing to tourist spots where someone will speak slowly.
But, there have been a few small signs of progress and I guess we just need more time, and practice (as I always tell my students!)—trite, maybe, but true.
I relate well to my students anyway (so I’m told) but after this experience I hope that I will be even more empathetic.