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What Language Is and Isn't

My days here in France are often spent straddling two linguistic worlds. My professional life ‘happens’ mostly in English, thinking about its mechanics, how to explain ‘x’ grammar point, and how to speak clearly to my students. My personal life revolves around French, which we speak at home. 

In short, thinking about language is a large part of my day, and in this post I’d like to comment on some reflections I have about language and language learning.

Since moving to France, the place of French in my life has changed. Whereas in the US it was a beautiful object to admire, to study, to practice, here it is my survival tool, my key to sorting out my life in every way from administration to asking for something in a different size in a store. 

French is my lifeline. My command of it, on both a linguistic and a pragmatic level, can make or break many situations. This can sometimes put me at a disadvantage, but this is also something you have to accept as a foreigner.

Example of my Italian/French/English vocabulary
drawings to help me learn new words
In the US, when I mention I live in France, I often get asked : “Are you fluent ?” This idea of fluency is very much an element of what we consider ‘mastery’ of a foreign language. Similarly, when asking my French students about their goals in speaking English, many will say something like “I want to be fluent” or “I want to speak fluency”. If you press them further, they might add something like: “I want to speak with more ease, I want to be comfortable, I want to have more automaticity”.

While these are admirable goals, I think they also help illustrate how vague the notion of ‘fluency’ is. Because while I would say that I have attained a level of comfort and ease in French that doesn’t make my daily life difficult, I also know that my language ability fluctuates day by day, minute by minute.

There are good days, and there are bad days. There are days where you can be amazed by the complex constructions effortlessly coming out of your mouth, the authentic vocabulary, and the automatisms that come naturally. And then there are the days that people ask you right away where you’re from (because they hear your accent), or you’re frustrated because you can’t get your point across like you want, or you don’t understand someone in a conversation and later rehash it to figure out it meant something simple.

My vocabulary notebook in 2005, when I was studying abroad.

Are we ‘fluent’ both of these days? What we should probably be asking is, does it really matter ? Does that label mean anything really ? 

What I’ve decided is that it’s your own goal that matters, not any comparison with someone else. This is much easier said than done. But this is also what I hope to impress upon my students, who are constantly haunted by the knowledge that ‘everyone’ speaks English. To really improve and sincerely move forward, you have to focus on yourself, and only on yourself.

When you do this, you can also start to find your own little victories or advances with the language. For me, one was the first time I was reading a sign in French and didn’t register it as a foreign language anymore, I could read it as easily as English. Another was when I realized, after a trip to Paris in high school that I came home thinking in French. Both of these events happened fairly early in my learning of French, definitely before I considered myself ‘fluent’.

Since moving to France I’ve started learning Italian. What a humbling experience to begin a new language, to see my vulnerabilities, to hear my awkward imitation of sounds (my Italian r sounds distinctly French). As a language teacher this has also been a great reminder to me of the vulnerability of my students and of the very unbalanced relationship I have with them in the classroom (me as a native speaker, and them as non-native learners).

With Italian, it’s also very easy for me to do what my students often do with one another, that is, to compare myself to the other speakers in my class. Italian is a widely spoken and studied language in France. In this context, like the context in which my students study English, it’s easy to compare yourself to everyone and become discouraged by what you don’t have. But this is why, in my opinion, it’s so important to focus on yourself. If you are in competition, it’s with yourself.

When you start to focus more on yourself, you can start to make this foreign language 'yours'. One way to do this is to find and focus on something you really like about the language. This can be anything. Maybe it’s music, books, or film but being clear on your own interests and motivation for the language is crucial. For me, I like to draw and so I’ve enjoyed illustrating and drawing vocabulary between Italian, English and French. I also like thinking about travelling to Italy and being able to have a deeper understanding of the history and culture. 

In this same vein, language is also part of us. It’s not something outside of us, something that exists in a separate plane. It’s something we construct and integrate as part of our identities. For a foreign language, I think that once we are able to integrate it as part of our personality and our identity, that’s when the real work can begin. I also think you don’t have to have a high level in a language to do this, just intrinsic motivation. You personalize your native language, with your own distinct voice, intonation, and vocabulary. The same goes for learning a foreign language. Your version may not sound native like, and there may be mistakes in it, but it’s still yours.

Learning a language is never a ‘finished’ process, and that’s what’s both fascinating and maddening about it. It changes you and the way you see the world. While labels for levels (beginner, intermediate, etc.) are necessary at times to help us progress, I also think we too often forget about the sheer pleasure in the discovery of a new language. 

How wonderful it is! Que c'est beau! Che bello!   


  1. Very nice and unique post, I love your blog, thanks for this article.

  2. Thank you, Turkey Tours, for reading and for your comments!

  3. Great concept, focusing own one's own little steps forward! How encouraging and supportive :-)


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