Just Enough French

A man wearing sunglasses and a dusty blue shirt peers out from around a corner as I stand waiting for my partner to finish filming a video sequence for class.

"Bonjour," he says. "Bonjour," I reply with a smile. He begins to speak in rapid sentences, and I quickly interrupt to express that I can only speak a little bit of French. He continues to ask me questions anyway.

When I first made the decision to spend a month in the south of France this summer, I didn't think about the language barrier. It didn't hit me until only a few weeks before my departure that everyone would be speaking French—a language I studied in high school, but have mostly forgotten. Nervousness set in as I imagined the residents of my new temporary home shunning me for not speaking their language.

The first couple of days in Perpignan were predictably challenging. I could barely order a croissant, let alone partake in an actual conversation. Afraid to even try to speak in French for fear of humiliation, I clutched onto my miniature "Just Enough French" handbook and eagerly awaited our first day of French class.

But the notion that my stay here would just be one instance of embarrassment after another, that Perpignan residents would openly detest me for not being able to speak French well, was wrong.

When I attempted to tell the man with the sunglasses that I was a student filming construction for a journalism class, he nodded and grinned and helped when I didn't know a word. Though I couldn't understand half of what he was saying to me, it was refreshing to speak the language and be able to laugh at my errors rather than run away, or revert to English, in shame.

Just as it's hard for me to converse in French, it's probably just as difficult for the people of Perpignan to communicate with someone who can hardly produce a sentence without making at least one mistake. But they go on talking anyway, and most of the time, they aren't irritated or rude, but helpful and warm.

As two other English-speakers and I struggled over the pronunciation of numbers while splitting a check at dinner one night—the Spanish seis accidentally uttered instead of the French six, quinze confused for cinquante—the waiter didn't roll his eyes. Rather, he kindly corrected us. With a smile. Luckily, those are universal.

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About the Program

Fifteen college students came from North America to Perpignan, France, in June 2011 to produce these videos and stories. To find out more, read a welcome letter from program director Rachele Kanigel, meet the program faculty and explore the 2010 website.