Tongue tied

I’m just back from the railway station with a couple more tickets I bought. Why is this so hard?

Maybe my standards are too high. I happily approached the ticket desk when it became free, despite the fact that the girl at the one with a Union Flag saying English is spoken was much cuter than the guy in front of me. In general I like to speak French and I think I might have formed the idea that its a failure when I speak to someone in French and they, for whatever reason, reply in English. Or worse still, when they reply in French and I can’t understand what they said, and then ask them to say it again slowly and then they switch to English. Anyway, Loïc didn’t speak any English so I was lucky.

Or perhaps not.

When it was time to pay for my two train journeys, the price seemed suspiciously low. I asked to, to confirm, that I had bought two return journeys. Yes, he nodded, and started reading out the details, slightly faster than I could process. So I asked him what happened to the journey in July which had been the first one I had asked for. He opened his draw and started searching through a wad of receipts to see if I had bought a ticket. I apologised for the confusion and started from scratch to enumerate the journeys I wanted to buy. At which moment another lady came back from her lunch break and he called her over to speak to me in English. By this time, rather than disappointed by my failure to communicate in French, I was fee glad for the chance to speak without being misunderstood. But still I could feel a bit tight muscle in my chest about where my hart is as I swallowed my shame and explained, in English, that somehow when I had tried to correct he date of one of my tickets, Loïc had thought I wanted to cancel that journey.

“God damn it, why can’t I understand these people yet? And I’m feeling like a failure, after a year, when I can’t even buy fucking train tickets without a translator. And the shame of that failure makes e want to run away: buy on-line, not travel at all, leave the country, quit my job, eradicate the failed experience of living in France and learning French. This was not my idea, this is not what I wanted. This is not the successful and clever man as whom I wish to see myself.”

And rather than treating this as a great and useful learning experience, I am treating it as evidence of my inferiority because, of course, my non-French speaking colleagues are doing much better than me, and other comparisons effective at, if not intended to, make me miserable.

In fact I expect that I compare myself with the others precisely to make myself feel bad; I do specifically as an effective means of beating myself up; punishing myself for not meeting my own standard. For not speaking French as well as I want to because I am interpreting that as meaning that I am not as clever as my image of myself. The reason my ego hates my reality so badly as to be prepared to attack it with harmful comparisons, is because the ego thinks I’m pretty damn smart and can’t bear to see me letting down its image of me.

And I so want to embrace the poor kid struggling to be understood, I want to find the me who is doing his best, and cuddle him and say “You’re doing great already, kid, just keep at it”. But I’m finding it hard to locate him because my ego is in the way, in control, making me want to avoid experiences in which I might fail to live up to it’s image of me, rather than enjoy them for what they are.


  1. Mark Says:

    I want to just add a p.s. about my motivation for writing this entry.

    I’m aware that I am expecting potential future employers to find this site and to read my blog entries (Hi guys, welcome to BJ.c)

    I chose to write this not because I want sympathy from my friends, but because I want to announce publicly what I am dealing with and what I am learning about myself in the process. I want to acknowledge that little kid within me and to make him part of my self-image, and my sense of self, in an effort to short-circuit the denial that, I think, is contributing to my discomfort around speaking French.

    I had a great conversation with my French teacher this week. She lent me The Gift Of Dyslexia a few weeks back and we spoke of how Ron Davis’s theory identifies the difficulties that dyslexic children experience in school as being due to their emotional response to the confusion thrown up by their strategy for dealing with things they don’t recognise. If you want to know more about that strategy, read the book or this summary on his site. But the interesting thing is that the emotional response becomes the learning block. Dyslexia has no pathology; there has, in the past, been some debate about whether or not it is a “real condition“.

    I’m working on the emotional response that I have noticed in myself when trying to communicate in French. I don’t want it to be a block. I believe the first step is to acknowledge that it has happened (I’m choosing past tense deliberately here, it is not part of me, just something I have noticed in the past) and continue loving myself. And I’m using this public discussion as part of that acknowledgement.

  2. Mike Blowers Says:

    Hey Mark,

    Sat down to do some work this morning and your name popped in my head – ?
    Easy search to find you, stunned, yet impressed by your move to France.

    I feel for you in the struggle with the French language – in fact any foreign language has always been a complete barrier to me too. Great respect for you throwing yourself in there like that. I remember one of the old French teachers at school saying the best way to learn was to visit the country itself, where you will be forced to learn (you probably heard the same comment!).

    Don’t let me even try to sound knowledgeable about such things but I think it is fundamentally a case of a persons particular aptitude. I have found that anything I am passionate about – I can learn easily, whilst something I am forced to learn through circumstance, is a real struggle. And I feel too old these days to struggle, so I dodge it – all the time.

    Just like the work I was supposed to be doing just now!


  3. mungo Says:

    Don’t be too hard on yourself… managing in a language is fairly easy when everyone “sticks to the script”, but once something has gone wrong or become confused it’s *really* hard to get out of that hole…

    FWIW I had a similar experience once where I was forced to argue with someone being really stupid (or enforcing really stupid rules) at the Calais Eurostar terminal on time. I think I only actually got my own way because I was able to (somehow) bring myself to forcefully argue my point in French. But to get to that point took me 3 years of doing French at school and another 3 of evening classes to do A-level. It takes time!

  4. jan Says:

    Hi Ki ora will have my half penneth hear ..I actually believe some of us can sew and some just cannot .. and some have this gift with language .. and can just speak it write it, and quickly learn others…some will always take longer and get by and … for some it is a mystery…….thats me I still hvae trouble with English ..let alone Maori which is spoken and is First language for a lot of people hear..
    So Mark I feel very much in awe of you and your achievements in France ..It takes real courage well Jan

  5. Alan Says:


    Just browsing some of your old posts while I wait for a new kernel to download at 2 KB/sec… I can definitely feel your pain with the foreign language and country thing. The Kiswahili’s not toooo hard, and I’m picking up some Kikamba greetings, but I think I need to stop greeting the age 15 – 25 crowd.

    Last week in the market I greeted a young man in the market (near where the matatus let off) and he wouldn’t let go of my hand when I walked away… within 20 seconds there were 15 of them around me. Nothing happened, but it was scary for sure, and I was able to keep my cool and walk out of there. hAHAHA


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