I was sitting on a plane for a 4-hour flight from home. My sister and I were traveling for the first time to France. I was ready to speak French with anyone. I was eager to (parler la langue de Molière*.
From Fluent in 3 Months and Benny, I learned you can create an immersion environment at home. You can be exposed to a language just like being abroad while traveling. For me, traveling to France was my final exam.
For about a year I had prepared for that moment. I chose to stay away from classrooms and universities to learn French. Instead, I took private lessons with tutors online. I listened to podcasts. I talked to language exchange partners. But after all that preparation, I wasn't completely ready. I still had some lessons to learn about languages and travel. These are the three lessons I learned about languages during my first trip to France.
Lesson 1: Don't Fall into the Temptation of Speaking English
After a short stop in Barcelona, I was in a tram with my sister crossing the Pont de Pierre in Bordeaux, France. It was our first day in France! I was holding my cell phone with Google Maps open. I wanted to make sure we were on the right tram and going in the right direction.
Down the bridge, the tram suddenly stopped. Everybody started to get off the tram. I asked a couple of locals next to us what was happening. It was the last stop that day.
We were kilometers away from our hotel. It was at least a 15-minute walk. When we got off the tram, the locals we’d chatted with asked us if we knew our way to the hotel and they offered to take us there.
I was surprised and worried. The guy asked us to meet them on the next street. We started to walk to our hotel anyways.
They kindly took us to our hotel. I tried to break the ice and start some small talk to show our gratitude. But, there was one small thing. They talked in English all the way to the hotel. I kept answering all their questions in French. It was a bilingual conversation.
This is the first lesson I learned. When you travel and connect with locals, you want to practice your target language. And, they want to practice their target language too. Most of the time, conversations end up being in English. Don't think they're rude or your level isn't advanced enough. Appreciate the fact they want to make you feel comfortable speaking in your own language. Just keep speaking your target language. Don't fall into the temptation of speaking in English.
If you find yourself in a situation like this one, you can use these phrases:
- Désolé, je voudrais parler francais. Je suis ici pour améliorer mon français. – “Sorry, I would like to speak French. I'm here to improve my French”
- J'ai besoin de pratiquer mon français. On peut parler en français? – “I need to practice my French. Can we speak in French?”
Lesson 2: Learn Vocabulary to Suit Your Needs (Or, How I Created a Security Alert at a French Airport!)
During our trip, we were at the airport near Bordeaux. After a 40-minute ride from Bordeaux, we were ready to head to our next destination. Our stay in France wasn't over yet. We arrived on time at the airport, and we didn't have to rush to find our gate.
At this point, I was used to taking off my shoes and belt, and emptying my pockets. While I went through security, getting my backpack scanned, the officer asked: carte d'embarquement!. I was shocked. I couldn't understand those words. If my brain would have been a computer, it would have returned “file not found”. He continued to ask carte d'embarquement…carte d'embarquement. I had no idea what he was asking for. I was about to raise suspicions because of how nervous I was.
Then, I guessed he was asking me for my boarding pass. It's obvious now. I felt embarrassed later when he asked me if I spoke French. I couldn't make my way through security. But, a few minutes before, I was talking to the taxi driver without any effort on our way to the airport.
This situation taught me the second lesson. Learn vocabulary to suit your needs. I didn't prepare to board a flight. In fact, I didn't study any vocabulary related to airports at all. I could talk about the news and books I had read. I could share about my country with my language partners. But I couldn't make it through security at the airport.
If you're an au pair, you would need different vocabulary than a businessman or a tourist. If you're a tourist, you will need to learn how to call your hotel to change your reservation or order a typical dish at a restaurant. (These days, you can use an app for these situations, but this isn't the point). Create your own phrasebook for the situations you will likely find during your travels.
Make sure to use flashcards or space repetition apps like Anki to continuously review your vocabulary. Please, don't forget to learn how to answer to an officer at security or customs asking for your boarding pass.
Here are four handy phrases you can use at customs:
- *Je vais rester seulement pendant une semaine en France.” – “I'm staying for only one week in France.”
- “Voici mon billet d'avion et ma réservation d'hôtel.” – “Here's my ticket and my hotel reservation.”
- J'ai ma carte d'embarquement dans mon portable. – “I have my boarding pass on my cell phone.”
- J'ai une carte de crédit et 300 euros en espèces. – “I have a traveller's card and 300 euros in cash.”
Lesson 3: Mistakes are Progress – Embrace it When Locals Correct Your Language Skills
After enjoying a great time, my travels were coming to an end. This time, we were again at the airport heading back home. We arrived so early that we couldn't get into the waiting room. Our flight was the last one of the day. I was hungry so I walked around to find a place to eat.
With a few euros left in my pocket, I was looking for une formule. Maybe a sandwich and a canned soda. I found only one cafe still open. This cafe offered une formule with desert included. The waitress pointed in the menu all the options she still had available. I wanted to check if all the desserts on the shelf were included in the options she told me. So I asked: n'importe quoi?. I meant: any dessert?. Then the waitress corrected me: n'importe quel. I had no choice but to accept the correction, repeat the question with the correction and say thanks. I just had a free language lesson.
Mistakes are part of the learning process. In fact, mistakes are progress. A toddler falls down so many times before walking. He isn't afraid of failing. He gets up and tries again. Don't be afraid of making mistakes. Nobody is going to make fun of you or your mistakes. Take every interaction with locals as a learning opportunity. Often you will find they are kind and willing to help. Most locals will appreciate the fact you're learning their language.
While ordering at cafes, you can use these three phrases:
- Je peux régler par carte? Voici ma carte et mon passport. – “Can I pay with a credit card? Here it's my card and my passport.”
- Vous avez quelque formule pour le petit déjeuner? – “Do you have any options/combo for breakfast?”
- Je vais prendre un américain et un déca, sil vous plait. – “I'll have an American and a decaffeinated coffee, please.”
Travel is Addictive!
Traveling and languages are addictive. Once you start, you can’t stop.
Traveling can change our lives. And our experiences with languages, too. Being abroad pushes your target language to its limits. The next time you travel to learn or practice a language, take advantage of total immersion. Turn on the TV while you stay in the hotel, pay attention to conversations around you. Enjoy every moment surrounded by your language.
My sister learned a couple of French words: salut, bonjour, au revoir and lait. She had the chance to use those words. Especially lait (“milk”) every day at breakfast.
If you go to Bordeaux, chances are you will find that nice couple in the tram, too. Say “hi” to them from me and continue to speak in French.
Happy language learning!