For a long time I was taken in by other people’s expectations.
“If you live in a country long enough, you will become fluent,” everyone used to say, as if it were an automatic process or a matter of accumulating frequent-speaker points.
It isn’t true. Some people are good at maths; others struggle with numbers their entire lives. It is the same with foreign words.
There are people who become bilingual without trying. I am never going to be one of them and I have learned to accept it.
Rather than chase the impossible, I concentrate on where I have come from and the progress I have made.
Notice your achievements
Fluency, for me, is not reaching a pinnacle and passing myself off as a regular M. Dubois. It is noticing my achievements.
My level of fluency can vary from day to day. It also depends on who I am talking to and whether I think they are judging my language rather than listening to what I am saying.
Sometimes I surprise myself at how easily French comes out. However, there are days and situations in which I find it difficult to string a sentence together.
On such occasions, I laugh it off and blame whomever I am talking to for having such an impossibly convoluted language.
The reality is, we are all (the French included) on a continuum, from the baby uttering its first words to the editor of the Larousse dictionary who never has to describe something as a machin truc (‘wotsit’ or ‘thingummy’).
There are degrees of competence in a language according to the operations you can perform.
It is possible to be fluent in the language of rugby, wine or dry-lining walls, but not to know who Jean-Jacques Rousseau was, and vice versa.
I prefer to measure aptitude according to a series of not very precisely defined stages.
Stage One is functioning on a day-to-day level. This means being able to trot out the common phrases that lubricate daily interactions and to ask pertinent questions.
You could sum it up as the ability to have a chat about nothing special with someone whose name you don’t even know.
Stage Two comes when you manage to hold a conversation on some abstract topic without your interlocutor furrowing his/her brow as he/she tries to figure out what you are trying to say.
An example is explaining your requirements to the guy in the timber yard over the noise of a circular saw.
Stage Three is voluntarily picking up the telephone, explaining yourself to an unhelpful operator and answering difficult questions including your mother’s maiden name.
The ultimate test is dictating, or accurately writing down, a telephone number made up of pairs of digits over 70 (quatre-vingt-dix for 90, etc).
Stage Four is being able to speak in public, even if it is only posing a question at a town hall meeting.
Or, alternatively, being able to make a joke in French which makes everyone laugh – at the joke, not at some faux pas or mispronunciation.
Stage Five, I imagine, will be reached when I become as comfortable in French as I am in English.
At this stage, I will be able to have a debate with an acquaintance about an increase in cartons on the road to the supermarket without me thinking we are talking about burger boxes when he is really talking about car crashes – the slang for which is carton, normally meaning ‘cardboard’.