Quebec, You Make Me Self-Conscious (But I’m Just Being Silly)

“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint, the greats were great because they paint a lot..,’

I was listening to Macklemore when I first set foot in Quebec City. It was 6 am, and I had “slept” on an overnight train–the music wasn’t for entertainment, it was a much-needed pep talk.

“I will not be a statistic, just let me be…”

The streets were empty, steep, and (of course) uphill the whole way. I trudged forward with the song on repeat, clinging to the words. I’ve listened to this anthem countless times. It has been good to me. I’m lazy and insecure and my creativity needs constant motivation, so songs that kick my ass are more than welcome. Plus, Macklemore is just fantastic. Plus, I like the themes: Hard work. Potential. Passion. People.

This time, though, my brain didn’t connect the message to creative endevours. It didn’t motivate me to learn a new chord, or write a semi-meaningful poem. I had one thing on my mind: le français.

I was in Quebec. I have been studying French for…a long time, at any rate. The last 5 years I have put crazy effort into it. I take a third of my University classes in French. I do customer service-lite in my second language. I claim bilingualism on my resume (then explain it away at interviews).

This was the test. Would I be able to speak French in this province, or would they snarl at my messy accent? Would I shrivel into a poor, defenseless anglophone? It wasn’t impossible. This was Quebec. I was one mispronunciation away from an eye roll and the ever-deameaning “Eez h’okay, vee can speak anglais.”

Ten thousand hours felt like ten thousand hands, ten thousand hands, they carry me.

Ten thousand hours, the song repeated to my tired brain. If you’ve practiced for ten thousand hours, you should be an expert. That’s how it works, right?

I must have spent ten thousand hours speaking French by now. In that moment, I decided I needed to find out.

I sat down on a bench and pulled the phone from my sweater pocket–20% battery, draining with every stroke. I pressed my thumb to the calculator icon and began to tally up the time I’ve spent studying French.

One hour a week from Grade 1 to Grade 6, is 1 x 42 x 6, is…only 242? Maybe it was two hours a week. 484. Okay.

Around 500 hours of class in high school. About the same in University. What about those 3 months in France? Can I put that down for 2,000 hours?

All my totals were a stretch. I added up the liberal estimates, pushing the “equal” button firmly. The number on the screen mocked me. I scrunched up my face. 3500 hours. Not ten thousand.

Not even close.

I mentally scanned through my short life, realizing that “eating,” “sleeping,” and “talking” were the only things I have practiced for ten thousand hours (which, my calculator informed me, is an enormous 416.67 days, or 1.14 years).

Great. I’m not even very good at those.

I’m no Outlier, and I’m certainly no language scholar.

My feet were heavy as I moved further uphill. This was just another chapter in my weird relationship with bilingualism. Terms like “studying French” or “learning a new language” always sound so simple–they don’t properly embody the embarrassment, frustration and word-wrestling I’ve been doing these last few years. It’s a rewarding process, but it always plays games with my confidence.

Or, at least, I always play games with my confidence. This time, I used a calculator and arbitrary standards in a rap song. Ten thousand hours? I thought bitterly. How is that possible?

time

By the time I reached the Quebec hostel, I had successfully chewed away most of my second language confidence. The words “Parlez-vous anglais?” practically fell out of my mouth. The lady at the front desk smiled back at me. “Yes, of course,” she responded, helping me check-in and stowing my bag. I told her thank you–didn’t even attempt a merci– and headed out the door.

I immediately felt bad about it. One of my personal rules is “love > fear.” It’s a cutesy and unspecific rule with about a million flaws, but I use it all the same. I use it because, in some moments, it’s a solid reminder. It was certainly a solid reminder as I stepped down the sunny Quebec City streets in search of breakfast. My fear of francophone judgement was overriding the hours (albeit not 10,000) that I’ve put into learning their beautiful language.

So I ordered my breakfast in French. They served me right back in French.

I asked for directions in French.

I went back to the hostel, and spoke to some francophone roommates. They asked if I could switch rooms so their friend, in another room, could bunk with them. I agreed. We sorted out those details in French, too.

I even met a friend from Ireland who couldn’t eat gluten, and inquired about the menu for him at a couple restaurants.

Not bad for 3,500 hours.

And so, as I get ready for my government bilingualism test and my fourth year courses en francais next year, I’m feeling just a little bit more confident. Just a bit. But for me, that bit is a really big deal.

So thank you, thank you Quebec. Thank you for not laughing at my accent, or switching to English when I mixed up my pronouns. Thank you for understanding when my imparfait was particularly imperfect. Most of all, thank you for serving me in French–and for smiling at the fact that I’m trying to speak your language.

Thank you for a great 3 days, Quebec. You’re really not as scary as everyone seems to think.

c'est si bon

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2 thoughts on “Quebec, You Make Me Self-Conscious (But I’m Just Being Silly)

  1. All my life I’ve periodically taken a stab at french, then draw a blank when it comes time to using it. The latest is using Rosetta Stone, which my brain has now simply adapted to in order to find the correct answers. It hasn’t solved the conversation engagement problem. Last week a guy from france was sitting next to me at a restaurant and I wanted to ask which “region” he was from and realized, once again, i couldn’t remember the frigging words. While in Tanzania, english was so easy to fall back on that, unlike my peers, I never became well versed in swahili — one of the easiest languages to learn. Over ten years later, those peers still retain that knowledge. I can barely remember how to order a beer. It’s frustrating as all hell. My next attempt is intensive conversational french lessons with a veteran french teacher. Crossing fingers this works. Any tips you have I would love to hear.

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