“Aren’t you fluent in French yet?”. This is a question that has been posed to me by friends back home. The short answer is, no … no I am not. But when will I be fluent? This is a question I have started to ask myself, which has caused me to think more recently about what it truly means to be “fluent” in a language.
Fluency in language is an interesting thing. To be honest, some days I am not sure I am fluent in English. Yes, I can hold a conversation. However, there are still MANY words in English for which I still do not know the meaning. And although I like to think I understand English grammar, I have a suspicion there may be an English teacher or two out there reading my blog who are twitching at each subtle mistake. And regarding spelling … well, thankfully my computer now fixes most of my speling mistaikes.
Before we came to France, BIniyam tried to convince me that he didn’t need to come because he was already fluent in French. He knew how to say “bonjour” and “ça va?”. He also claims to be fluent in Kirundi, Spanish and Japanese. I think am going to be a little slower to apply this word to myself. In fact, I am not sure I will ever reach the point where I feel confident enough to label myself “fluent”. For me, that is a weighty word.
The U.S. State Department has given me some guidance on this topic, as they have created a Proficiency Code, with a scale of 0 to 5. In fact, anyone can take this exam, which will inform you of which level you fall under for a given language. Level 5 means that you are able to use a language in reading and speaking, “fluently and accurately” on all levels pertinent to professional needs. Well, I did “fluently and accurately” order a baguette this morning … does that count?
After studying French full-time for the past 3 months, I stand in awe of people who speak two or more languages “fluently”. In fact, the place where I have met the most number of people who I would say fall into this group, are Africans, especially the medical students I work with. Many of them switch back and forth between French, Kirundi, and sometimes English, with complete ease. The students who come to us from Congo (where there are many more languages spoken) sometimes speak 7 or 8 languages with fluency.
Learning a new language at the age of 42 offers daily opportunities for discouragement. Although I tested into an intermediate level in our school, I continue to have opportunities listening or speaking, in which I end up completely lost. We are so grateful for the language partners who meet with us each week. There are dozens of men and women here in Albertville who donate their time each week to meet one on one with the students at our school to give us practice in conversational French. These opportunities are massively important for us, but sometimes leave me feeling deflated and wondering what just happened (“wait … I agreed to do WHAT to your cat?”).
This morning I needed to respond to an e-mail I received from a nurse anesthetist in Burundi. The e-mail was in French. An e-mail that would have taken me 2 or 3 minutes to compose in English, took me 30 minutes to compose in French.
I know I should be used to discouragement, having gone through medical school and residency, where one is often humiliated (sometimes in front of large groups of people), but somehow this feels different, and I am not sure why. Perhaps it is because I have a family now, and the amount of time I have each evening to study is more limited. Or maybe it is because trying to talk to people in a language that is new to you leaves you feeling vulnerable. Or perhaps it is because the line between success and failure, or fluency and non-fluency, is a bit more hazy when it comes to language learning, compared to the study of medicine.
So, I go back to the bible to encourage me, and once again I find comfort in the words of 2 Corinthians 12:9-10: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me”.
Yes, I am making progress, and I am able to speak French better than I was 3 months ago, but I am weak, and I will likely continue to embarrass myself in front of native French speakers. And some days I will feel like an utter failure. But it will be okay, because His grace is sufficient.
Our time here is important, and in fact is crucial to our success in Burundi. We would not be here if this was optional. We are grateful for this school, our teachers and our language partners. And we are grateful for everyone back home who is supporting us prayerfully and financially to allow us to invest this year in our future work in Kibuye. Ultimately though, we believe this is not our work, but is God’s. And so, our “success” will rest not on our fluency, but on His grace.