Life in Paris, Relationships

Listening :

Some reflections on language and listening.

In thinking about how difficult it can be to speak French, especially in a complex, professional context, I rarely spend enough time thinking about the necessity and utility of listening. As often happens when listening to a French conversation, it is imperative that I am always thinking ahead to my response.

I simply don’t think quickly in French. If I am to have any hope of being involved in the discussion, then I need to be formulating a response, conjugating verbs, checking the subject-verb agreements, before someone is even close to being finished with their thought.

This is often an ineffective strategy, because I wind up responding with correct French but in an incorrect context. For example, I offered to bring a rice cooker to the office function on Thursday. I was so caught up in responding to my coworker that I literally did not heart that it was a surprise party. She was nice about it, but I’m 90% sure I ruined the surprise by blathering about it (in correct French!) near the woman for whom the party is taking place. 


Without sufficient time and mental energy to listen, I feel stupid for failing to respond to the full context of the conversation. With sufficient time and mental energy to listen, I *still* feel stupid because it takes me a full 30 seconds to get my response figured out, and when I do, they’re often in poor, rushed French.

I know that this trade-off is temporary – my French language skills are improving every day. It is literally just a matter of time and practice until I am thinking more quickly and seamlessly in French. There are also several ways to accelerate the process.

I’m reading French more often, and not just the little morning newspapers that you can pick up in the metro. I checked out three books this weekend at the library, so I’m reading a series of short stories by Anne Gavalda.

They’re very interesting, and I’m already noticing how my vocabulary is improving. I also found a couple of French podcasts and they’re optimistically in my weekly rotation. Listening to just-faster-than-conversational French is still a challenge, so I often have to take the time to focus, rewind, and make sure that I’ve understood what exactly is going on. 

So far the data collection is going really well, and the people who have opted for the post-survey interview have said that they are enjoying the process. I am trying to wrap my head around the fact that I can bring added value to someone’s visit at our centre, even if my French isn’t perfect. After all, once I have explained a bit about how they scored on the survey, most of my job at that point is to listen while they discuss how it impacts them. Many are keen to explain their situation, and I am just as happy to listen!


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