Mother Knows Best

Katie Nodjimbadem
October 14, 2013

For years I’ve felt a lot of pressure to be great at speaking French. I’m not sure where that pressure came from – is it all self-inflicted or does it come from others’ expectations that I should be bilingual simply because I have francophone parents?

My comprehension isn’t awful since I’ve heard the language since birth and spending years in French classes has certainly shaped my writing, but the thought of actually speaking French used to petrify me.

Whenever I voiced this problem to my French professor-mother she’d respond by sayings something like the following:

“You’ll get there. You’ll have the breakthrough. One day you’ll realize that you’re doing it – that you’re speaking French and it’s not scary. Immersion is key.”

I suspected I’d had the break through a couple months ago when I realized I could speak to my family and acquaintances in French without my hands sweating and my stomach churning. But I’ve had several encounters in the past couple of weeks that are proof that I’ve broken through and will never return to that dark place of extreme self-consciousness.

About a week ago, I went to the boulangerie down the street from my house to grab something for lunch. After purchasing my sandwich, I found an empty bench by the river’s edge and sat down. A few minutes later, I sensed someone standing next to me and I looked up to see a thirty-something woman standing there holding a boulangerie sack identical to mine.

“Est-ce que je peux m’asseoir ici (may I sit here)?,” she asked.

“Oui. Bien sûr (Yes, of course). I responded, without missing a beat.

We sat quietly for awhile, the occasional crunch of baguette being the only sound either of us emitted.

“C’est pas mal (It’s not bad),” she finally said with a nod toward her sandwich and a smile.

“Non, pas du tout (No, not at all),” I said with relief.

We continued to talk for about fifteen minutes.  We talked about the weather and I told her about the differences between my hometown in the Texas desert and my new home in Chicagoland.  I learned that she works in a government office in the building right around the corner from the boulangerie and before that she worked for an environmental agency. She asked me about my studies and where I’d traveled in France and told me I speak French well when I apologized for my grammar mistakes.

We compared desserts – mine a mille-feuille, hers a piece of flan. When she got up to run to a meeting she told me I should try the tuna sandwich next time and wished me luck in my studies.

It didn’t hit me until I returned home that I’d just had a spontaneous lunch with a complete stranger… in French. No accompanying sweaty hands, churning stomach or shallow breathing. I did it. I broke through.

This is what study abroad language immersion is all about – thanks, Mom.

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Katie Nodjimbadem

<p><span style="color: rgb(29, 29, 29); font-family: Arial, Verdana, sans-serif; font-size: 12px; line-height: normal; background-color: rgb(237, 237, 237);">Katie Nodjimbadem is a junior at Northwestern University majoring in journalism and planning to minor in French. She enjoys writing about diversity and culture for North by Northwestern magazine and loves interacting with prospective students as a campus tour guide. Katie bleeds purple and loves to cheer on her fellow wildcats at varsity sporting events. As the daughter of two Francophone parents, she desires to improve her French to better understand her heritage and strengthen her ties with her extended family.</span></p>

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