Jiang: 抱歉/Excuse me/Pardon, I’m not fluent but allow me to learn your language

Hannah Zhihan Jiang, Op-Ed Contributor

Getting off the plane to Paris this fall, I found an airport café and ordered in French. Ten minutes before, with my phone tilted so no one could see my screen, I Google Translated every word I would need and ran through several scenarios in my head. I walked up and spoke. The staff smiled and nodded. It felt like I managed to exchange code on a secret mission – and it worked! 

As I rushed to grab my water and leave, they spoke to me in French again. They must have seen my widening pupils and noticed my brain rapidly processing to match the new phrases to a line in my French textbook. The processing was 80% there; I was about to say something —

“Do you want it cold or at room temperature?” they asked again, this time in English. 

Frustrated, I thought they had no faith in me.

Just hours into studying abroad in Paris, I realized I was not in a Northwestern French class anymore, where the professors talked more slowly. Whenever there was a complicated expression, my professors tried not to directly translate but found synonyms. I felt respected. 

But I never paid the store staff to teach me French. They were only there to sell the water. 

Living in a place with a foreign language is like being a child again. Right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, I need to learn the rules, the tacit agreements hidden in a language. The language speakers, with their absolute superior expertise, are the adults. They decide whether they are in the mood to correct, to help, to criticize, to show confusion or to reject by a simple switch to English. They know the rules, and they play by them. 

But I’m also not a child anymore. Any kind of interaction is educational as long as I keep speaking, I remind myself. It’s uncomfortable, but I shouldn’t allow a short temper to get the best of me like the three-year-old who lives next door to me. Waking up to his crying and coming home to a symphony of guitar and drums, I couldn’t blame him. He also speaks better French than me. 

Living in a new language is like becoming an introverted child with restraint. 

This was not the first time the introverted child in me made an appearance overnight. I went from a Chinese public school to an international school in the UK in 11th grade. I dreaded speaking with my classmates in a new language. Although I took English writing, speaking and grammar classes every weekend in middle school, and flew all over China and to the U.S. to attend debate tournaments, making small talk in a loud dining hall in English was terrifying. 

Sitting across from native English speakers, I said to myself, “You’ve got to say something. You cannot eat a silent meal. That’s not acceptable in a boarding school.” I always asked a question, in the loudest volume possible. And then they would go on for at least two minutes, saving me from speaking English. I had to listen carefully because my next sentence would be a follow-up question. 

I replaced my laptop this spring and, for the first time, I didn’t download a Chinese-to-English translator. When I came to France, French people sat across from me and said, “You intimidate me because you speak English too well.” Years of English language immersion paid off, and all at once, I started to sit on the other side of the table where the native speakers effortlessly expressed themselves and nodded along with encouraging smiles when non-native speakers spoke. 

I might never be as fluent in French as I am in Mandarin and English. I’m returning to the U.S. in two months and learning French is only out of interest. But the feeling of being vulnerable and absorbing new information every waking moment, which I sought to grow out of in my English-learning journey, felt precious this time. Knowing the two most spoken languages in the world, I no longer shoulder the responsibility of making others understand me through language barriers. It’s like a sentence I often hear speaking with older French people: “Ce n’est pas mon problème.” It’s not my problem.

But whose problem is it? The locals speaking their languages in their hometowns or the passersby reinforcing the dominance of English? Perhaps behind the staff’s quick switch to English is their recognition that people visit Paris for the Louvre and the croissant but rarely for everyday life in the French language. They become used to tourists stepping into their stores, looking righteous, placing orders in English and expecting to be understood. Locals expect nothing beyond “Bonjour,” and they have learned to speak better English. After all, they have to sell the water. 

So I continue making Parisians repeat their sentences and practicing my broken French with every French speaker.

Hannah Zhihan Jiang is a Medill Junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.