“I’d rather not hear you speak and ruin our beautiful language.”
These are essentially the words that a very rude French woman said to me on the streets of Paris twenty-two years ago.
I was a young, 20 year-old college student experiencing life for the first time in a foreign country. As a beginner in French, I was trying my hardest to communicate in a foreign language and to fit in.
So when I stopped a stranger on the street to ask for directions in French, I was utterly devastated, and humiliated, by her response (which was in English by the way NOT in French).
I didn’t know that this short exchange that happened so long ago would affect me up until today as it had. But it did affect me. A LOT.
As an impressionable young adult, that comment became fixated in my brain and since that time I’ve done almost everything I could (except permanently move to France), in order to prove that I can speak French. I’ve…
practiced speaking with native (and non-native) speakers
taken French classes
lived with French families
attended a French immersion school
watched tutorials and movies in French and
listened to French radio and news.
Yet, I continued to tell myself, “It’s not good enough. It’s not perfect. It’s not right. I’m not fluent.”
Not Being Good Enough
I brought the feeling of “not being good enough” into every single interaction I had with every French speaker.
That feeling always weighed me down.
I spent a lot of time worrying about how I sounded when I spoke, and spent too much time telling myself negative thoughts about my abilities.
I thought that I just needed to work harder so I could finally feel good in French. After all, we’re told, “Practice makes perfect.”
Indeed, the more I practiced, the better I could express myself, and the more compliments I received from others. But those compliments would run through me like the tiny holes of a colander. They never stuck, they never changed how I felt about my abilities, and I only aimed to do better.
Memories as Emotional Triggers
Earlier this year, I was working with a coach, and was talking about my upcoming trip to France. I shared that no matter how much I’ve tried to perfectly speak French, I could just never get there and told her about how bad I feel inside when I speak.
She asked me if I could remember when I started feeling this way. And then I recalled that day over twenty-two years ago, when I encountered this ignorant stranger, and let her rude comment steal my ability to feel good while speaking French.
The memory of this moment was an emotional trigger. I’d always joked about that instance over the years when talking about rude experiences while abroad, but it wasn’t until then I was able to realize just how much I’d taken this stranger’s comment to heart. When I thought of how she embarrassed me then, I realized that the memory still hurt just as much twenty-two years later, as it had in the moment.
My coach pointed out that instead of acknowledging the progress I’d made over the years, and embracing the compliments of French speakers, I was holding tightly to that short exchange on the streets of Paris, like a bucket that I couldn’t set down. Then I knew, “this was enough.” Twenty-two years was too long to let anyone else run the show in my French speaking life. It was time to set this bucket down.
Releasing the Memory
I’m someone who needs to vocalize my thoughts in order to process my emotions. So, I decided that the best way for me to release the hold of this memory was to speak out loud to this stranger and tell her exactly what I thought about her and how she used her power as a Parisian to intimidate a 20 year-old.
- I told her how much she hurt my feelings and the effect her rudeness had on me.
- I asked her how she would feel if someone said that to her when she was learning English.
- I reminded her of what it was like for her to learn English as a foreign language.
- I told her that her comments no longer have a hold on me.
Just acknowledging how that person negatively affected me, gave me much needed relief. She no longer had any power over me.
Healing the Emotional Trigger
I’m so glad that I did the work to dig deep and identify exactly what was holding me back from feeling good while communicating in French. I still have perfectionist tendencies that I’m working on, but I’m pleased to report that during my trip to France this summer, I experienced much fewer frustrations because I didn’t take any emotional baggage with me on the trip.
For the two weeks I was there, I was able to drop the expectations to sound perfect in French. I enjoyed speaking the language as much as I could and I didn’t get angry with myself when I couldn’t say exactly what I wanted to. Being relaxed about speaking and not worrying about what other’s thought about me, made for a really pleasant trip.
How about you? Do you carry any emotional baggage with you while communicating in a foreign language? I’d love to know if this article has helped you think more about how you feel when you interact in another language.
Melissa is a native English speaker and the first and only certified Neurolanguage Coach®* in Washington, D.C.
She has over a decade of experience working with English language learners and enjoy helping ex-pats and visitors see the city through the eyes of a local.