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in     by Albany Holbrook 07-11-2017

Meet Kronos and Hermes, looking pretty in the sun.

Three weeks ago, my boss left for a holiday in Portugal and I was alone here for 7 days with a lovely but slightly mad French woman. She was a very peaceful and kind breatharian, with some interesting opinions about life and aging. I’m really meeting a variety of people here!

She didn’t speak a word of English, and it was a real confidence boost because we managed to communicate well during the week. We went to visit the nearby historic town of Périgueux together, and I met several friends of hers from when she sold plants at the outdoor market. On the first and last weekends without my boss, my family came to stay. I did a lot of very fast translating with Marie the French woman, from both French to English and English to French and I felt very empowered. (It felt great being able to edit my dad’s embarrassing stories about me in the translating process!) By the time she left, my French was as good as it’s ever been.

Fast forward three weeks and it’s a different story. My boss is away again, and I’m working with a French brother and sister in their late twenties. They are funny and positive and very relaxed, but I can’t understand a word they say. Where before I would hear words and sentences, French just sounds like an odd mix of alien sounds. I’ve got the same frustratingly lost and overwhelmed feeling I had in year 9, when all I knew was a few set phrases and was expected to understand anything other than those. I can’t understand them when the ask me basic questions, let alone follow full conversations.  I’m silent at the dinner table because every time I try to make a sentence I get about 4 words in and have to stop because I can’t remember the grammar. Today we constructed a house out of hay bales for the quails, and I hovered like a useless lemon until they directly signaled something I could do to help, because I couldn’t understand the plan, no matter how much we discussed it. It’s driving me mad!

After another unsuccessful sentence attempt this evening, I gave up and explained how I felt in English to the siblings. What the older sister said made me feel a lot better. She said that she had the exact same problem when she was learning English, where everything feels great and then you crash without explanation for a while. But, she explained, there have been studies which suggest that when this happens, it’s because your brain needs time to digest what it’s learnt. Like a cow chewing his food a second time, she said. After this rumination, your progress shoots up and your speaking improves dramatically.

I like the idea that when my French is awful, it’s just my brain being so full of knowledge that it needs to stop working in order to take it all in, and when I get out of the slump I’ll be better than before. Therefore, struggling is just a sign that I’ve been learning a lot. A quick google hasn’t shown any studies about this: when I search, ‘Why can’t I speak French anymore?’ it just tells me how to say ‘Je ne parle pas français’.

Despite Google’s defeatist attitude, I’m going to embrace the theory wholeheartedly and remain hopeful for some dramatic improvement. In the meantime, I’m going to get lots of sleep and drink less wine in the evening.

So, if you’re having a bad week for your language ability, just remember you are the cow of the language world, and your brain is getting you ready for bigger and better things!

À bientôt!