Study Abroad - Language Barrier - Part 4 of 7

“C’est pas fait exprès,” my host father told me one morning while we were standing with the refrigerator open.

“Quoi?” was my response. I knew enough French to recognize that the connotation of my “What?” was slightly rude and shouldn’t be used with my host father, but I didn’t know enough to supply a kinder replacement.

“Pas exprès.”

“Quoi? Je ne comprend pas.”

“Pas exprès. EXPRES!! Je ne sais pas… exprès, quoi!!” he practically sputtered from exasperation.

If you don’t know what these words mean, don’t worry – neither did I. It’s a strange, desperate feeling to reach such a détente. I had no idea at the time that the term faire exprès meant to do on purpose, and he could offer no additional explanation but the word itself, spoken louder. All I could think of to do was nod as if I understood, then retreat to my bedroom, pull out my dictionary, and vow never to forget the meaning of faire exprès. At least not on purpose.

My first few months in Paris were filled with moments like this. While I did find it frustrating to not be able to communicate with my host family or my professors the way I wanted to, I knew it was to be expected. I tried to keep a sense of humor about it.

In an essay entitled “Jesus Shaves,” writer and humorist David Sedaris deftly recounts a moment in one of his lower-level French classes in Normandy when he and his classmates attempt to explain the significance of Easter to their Moroccan classmate. He retells the events using the English translation of the broken, fumbling sentence structures as he and his multicultural class offer up such helpful bits of information as “It is… a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus,” “He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father,” “He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples,” and “He make the good things, and on Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today” (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 177).

This essay so clearly describes how my friends and I felt the first month or two in Paris. One of our new favorite pastimes was to break down and translate the ridiculous things we had just said out load in French back into English. While you’re speaking with a native francophone, it’s such a sense of accomplishment to be able to carry on a conversation about anything – the weather, the current time, whether or not you feel you’re having a good day. But when you repeat those same sentences back to yourself in English and realize that you have the vocabulary and apparent IQ of a 2-year-old, all you can do is laugh. “I am hungry. I am very hungry.  I like the bread of France.” It’s humbling.

And that’s how it was for the first 2 months of my homestay. Exhilarating and heartbreaking, humorous and embarrassing.