Guest Post: Paris, France

March 23, 2011

I’m starting to forget English.

No, obviously not completely. But I can tell that my fluency in French is drastically improving.

First, I’ve nearly completely stopped translating conversations into English. If, in a conversation, I hear a word or two I’m unfamiliar with then of course I’ll try to figure out the meaning of the word based on context. But one day, for example, on our way to lunch, a few colleagues and I were discussing the upcoming wedding of a woman I work with and she was telling us about her bridesmaid. Someone wanted to know the English word for it, and I completely blanked! I had to tell them to come back to me, and that I’d remember what it was called later. Sure enough I remembered the word about 10 minutes later, but not without quite a bit of laughter from my French colleagues, who couldn’t understand how the American intern couldn’t remember a simple word in English!

Second, there are certain French words and phrases that, now that I know what they mean and how to use them appropriately, just don’t require translating into English. In fact, with these particular words and phrases, they seem so natural to me at this point that I can’t remember a time not knowing what they mean, and I certainly couldn’t tell you if or when I learned them in a classroom. It’s phrases and words like “incitations”, “il s’agit de…”, “il faut que…”, and “dérouler” that really stump me when I try to come up with an explanation for their meaning. Words like that have started to come naturally to me, popping up in my own vocabulary when I need them, then quietly slipping out of sight again, unquestioned.

So you can imagine my job, which frequently requires me to translate documents from French to English for the Center for Strategic Analysis’ website and for speeches at international colloquiums, can make me want to pull my hair out sometimes. When I’m speaking in English and only in English, not switching back and forth rapidly between the two, English is no problem. But right now it’s as if my brain has a language on/off switch. If I get started speaking, listening to, or reading in French then my English goes right out the window.

A few weeks ago, I was with my friends in the metro, on my way to the Musée Rodin, when a guy stopped me and asked for directions in English. I quickly replied in what I thought was English, then didn’t understand when he kept staring at me, giving me a weird look…turns out I’d unintentionally replied in French. Whoops, wrong language!

On another note, this past weekend I went to the Salon du Livre, an international symposium about books! It was at the Parc des Expositions site at Porte de Versailles in Paris. It’s an event that’s held annually, and brings together booksellers, authors promoting their books and available to talk about them and sign them, book lovers from all over the world, and of course, students, for whom entry is free! I love perks like that.

Karen Harshfield ’12 is an International Relations and French major who studied abroad in Paris through the IFE (Internships in Francophone Europe) program in spring 2011.  She spent three months interning at the Center for Strategic Analysis, a think tank that advises the Prime Minister on policy issues.  Her work focused on translating abstracts of research into English and conducting independent research comparing American and French think tanks’ approach to climate change research. Read more about Karen’s time abroad at Des Adventures à Paris.

About International W&M

The Reves Center for International Studies promotes, develops, and supports the global dimensions of learning, teaching, research, and community engagement at the College of William & Mary
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