Living with a host family was one of the things I was most nervous about when I first arrived in France. I’m shy, quiet, and introverted, so what little social stamina I have wears out really fast when I’m around people. I desperately wanted my host family to like me, since we were living together for the whole semester. The language barrier made socializing even more nerve-wracking, and for the first few weeks I became anxious whenever dinnertime rolled around because it meant that I’d have to go downstairs, try to engage in conversation, and deal with four people talking to me and each other all at once.
My host family and I got off to to a good start, and then my shyness got the best of me. Homesickness hit me hard about the third or fourth week, making me quieter than ever. And my host mom, bless her heart, thought that me being quiet meant I didn’t understand a word of her French.
She started translating almost everything she said into English for me. I was okay with it at first—I mean, I was a new student, she wanted to make sure I understood the basics, she was practicing her English, whatever.
One day I was leaving for French class, but went to my neighbor’s to walk with another IES Abroad student. I stood in the kitchen as she grabbed her backpack, and one of her host parents’ friends said something to me in French. I can’t remember what it was, but it was something basic—a how are you, what’s your name, where do you come from—and one of the host parents said, “Speak slower, she can’t understand.” The friend then said, in English,
“So French is difficult for you?”
I wanted to pull out one of my old French essays or something, similar to the impulse I have in English when someone tells me I’m too quiet, and say, “Here, look, I know what’s going on, I have opinions, I just don’t understand small talk and I’m not good at talking no matter the language.”
So that episode was embarrassing, and since these neighbors were also my host mom’s cousins, I worried that she’d said something to them about me. What made it feel even worse was that I’d been trying my hardest—and succeeding, by my standards—to speak a little more at dinner every night, slowly becoming more and more comfortable.
It’s a lot better now. I do talk more, enough so that I hope everyone understands that I understand.
Still, every time I complete a conversation with someone in French, I feel incredibly proud of myself. It’s a wonderful feeling, especially considering how many times someone has heard my accent and robbed me of that feeling by switching to English (one of many reasons why I’m not a huge fan of Paris—EVERYONE there speaks English, even when I respond in French). One day in Paris, just after I’d left the catacombs, I stopped for a quick lunch and ordered a sandwich.
The cashier asked me, in English, if I wanted chips.
No. No, I did not want chips.
Turns out, neither of us were speaking the same language—after a few minutes, when it was too late to change my mind, I realized he meant British chips: French fries.
Just a few days ago at the Paris Orly airport, two cashiers at the store I bought my dinner asked each other if they thought I spoke French. Of course, I was too timid to say anything. The more I think about it, the more I wish I had.
When stuff like this first happened, I was so embarrassed I switched to English too. Now, though, I cheerfully refuse, barreling ahead with my awkward American accent. I’ve accepted that I’m going to sound like an idiot—murder a pronunciation, use a word that doesn’t mean what I think it does, repeatedly misgender my refrigerator—but that’s the only way I’ll get better.
Conversations with my host family go better now too. My host mom knows that I’m quiet because that’s me, and that makes it easier to talk to her. She always pulls me into conversations and listens to me when I talk. On nights I don’t have homework, I watch movies about hiding dead bodies and crime shows with her and my host siblings.
I got really lucky with my host family. Even though it was terrifying at first, now it feels normal, and I’m going to miss them a lot when I go back to the US.
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<p>Hi! My name is Suzan Frierson and I'm a junior at the University of Redlands. I'm a Creative Writing major and French minor, and the language inspired me to study abroad in Nantes. I love traveling, writing, and going on adventures.</p>