Je voudrais that…

Learning a new language is not one of my strong suits. Communicating verbally is definitely not up my alley, which may be why I prefer to use the written word.

I seem to comprehend French better when I can read along. I can get the gist of the meaning when it is written. My comprehension is almost zero if I try to understand the short, recorded skits we hear in my beginner’s French class.

My limited vocabulary has made it difficult for me to take care of basic needs like buying food. Monoprix, the supermarket near our apartment, accepts debit cards and I can pick out all my own food so verbal communication is not necessary. However, when I stop by a small patisserie on my way to classes at the ALFMED language school, I feel like a child.

There is a kind, older woman who is usually at the front counter. The first few days in town, I would simply point to the food I wanted to purchase as if I were mute and she would smile back. We’ve been here in Perpignan for about three weeks now and I have barely gained the courage to attempt to speak more French to this patient woman. She has always greeted me, even when I rudely avoided a verbal reply.

I know that there are a lot of people who do not speak English back in the United States, especially in my home state, California, where 39 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2000 census. I am ashamed to admit that I did not grasp the intense emotions someone would go through being in a foreign country where few people speak his or her native language.

I do not think I would fully understand or experience the array of emotions unless I was truly on my own. Through this project, we are fortunate to have use of the many language services provided through ALFMED and some of the hotel receptionists speak a little English or at least attempt to. I also have about two dozen other English-speaking people (students, assistants or faculty) around me on most days. I cannot convey the joy and comfort that washes over me when I hear English-speakers around town. I imagine these feelings would be heightened tenfold if I were on my own in Perpignan.

As of May, 59 percent of California’s high school students have not been able to achieve English proficiency after six or more years of study, according to a report published by the California Community Foundation based on 40 school districts in the state. I can understand how this is possible after only about 20 hours of French instruction. Most of time, I am sitting in class completely lost until the instructor acts out the meaning of the words.

When I return home I am going to appreciate everything so much more, but I will be most grateful to be able to speak the dominant language. In the meantime, I will continue to use my pitiable, unsophisticated French skills to purchase baked goods from my favorite patisserie.