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How My First Language Meetup Showed Me I did NOT Forget my French

The WorldDid you really forget that foreign language? I share my first language exchange meet-up, that led to over 2 and 1/2 hours of French!

You haven’t spoken one of your foreign languages in some years. You come upon a situation where you are made to try speaking it. The words are slow to come, some seem forgotten, and you’re barely putting together cohesive sentences. You sound like an utter beginner, so you conclude what you’ve been suspecting: you’ve practically forgotten the language.

But have you really? That’s what I believed about my French, until this experience showed me otherwise. I haven’t spoken anything more than a few random sentences of French for over 6 years. I have not EVER spoken French for more than 30 minutes – and that was only once; 10 minutes was probably my usual maximum. I have, however, listened to French an hour or so, such as watching TV, but that was also rare. More details on my French level here. I thus considered myself unable to speak French anymore. The first half of this post will be a re-telling of that experience, and then I will use it to answering that question.

Language Meetups

I’m sure it’s not uncommon to hear of groups that get together once in a while for for special interests such as sewing, debates, book discussion, and so forth. It’s definitely a nice idea for anything that needs cooperation or when one is looking for people with the same interests. But have you ever looked for or gone to any for a subject of study? What about languages? Do you use Meetup.com?

I feel like traditionally, news of these spread by word-of-mouth, but now in the age of the Internet, these can be announced and found online. This is also the case for language study. One of my language exchange partners and now good friend from Hong Kong tends to go to many meet ups for various languages, and although they may be hit or miss in quality, she’s had enough good experiences to lead her to continue going to them. Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months.com, and other polyglots, have praised the value of meet ups. Benny Lewis has said that most of his language practice actually comes from non-native speakers. Considering that non-native speakers can still help teach and correct each other, perfection is not important for communication, and that languages may have more non-native speakers than native ones, you may realize the idea of practicing with non-native speakers is not something to belittle.
1st words learned graphjam

Because this can also happen when you trust the wrong native speakers

Finally, I can speak of my own experience, when I went for my first French language meet up.

Decision & Arrival

I’d already heard about Meetup.com so I could have discovered this group there, but I hadn’t searched for French groups yet since I was still trying to stabilize my Chinese and Japanese practice. I am now finally putting the effort in to bring back my French, and I heard about this meet up by word-of-mouth – through a friend of mine at school. A friend of his had been going to this meet up and told him about it. This would be his first visit, and he decided to see if I wanted to join him. So we met up at school and carpooled to the cafe where the meeting would be held.

My friend figured we should be right on time or just a little bit early to allow us to be easily introduced into the group before they get settled in. We got there at 7 PM and ended up being the first ones there. I went to the bathroom briefly and upon my return, I saw my friend speaking to an older woman. As I approached I heard French conversation, and my friend introduced me to her all in French. It had begun.

My French was extremely stilted, leaving long pauses as I thought of the words I needed, even though she was asking me simple, introductory questions, to the point that I would switch to English when I felt too stuck, so as to get the conversation moving. After all, I was just meeting this person and I still had no sense of what this meetup would be like. Slowly, more people came in and they all greeted each other and began their small talk all in French – which I was glad to see because I was really hoping that English would be avoided, and indeed it was! As we had hoped, it was nice being there from the start, to get reintroduced to the new people, and even I would being to partake in the introduction, allowing for the repetition of names which of course helped me to remember them.

As I think is only natural, I understand that whether or not a meet up is good depends on how open the groups acts towards newcomers and of course, what everyone’s individual personality is like. Luckily, everyone was very friendly and open and despite most of them knowing each other from past meetings, they would turn the conversation to us, would include us, and would ask us questions. They never dominated conversations too much and allowed us to step in easily. Most of them were older women in their 50s or 60s or so (though later a few more came in, rounding it out for pretty even number males and females), their American accents were detectable, and they some had obvious difficulty sometimes, but when that happened, they would simply ask how to say it, would confirm a word, or would take the time to think about it and the others would wait. Overall, you could say they were definitely conversationally fluent.

The 2 and 1/2 hours

At first, I was understandably pretty quiet as I was mostly trying to listen to get a grasp of everyone’s level of French, get accustomed to their accents, and see how well I could follow the conversations. I would step into conversations as possible, at least to confirm my understanding or express a reaction, and any more serious attempts would be only if I felt I could add something worthwhile to the conversation. Both by my own initiative, as well as through their openness, invitations, and questions, my engagement in conversation slowly increased despite my continued moments of pensiveness and unsteady speech, which would tend to make me think in Chinese!  As I got used to to responding more quickly without over-thinking my responses, I even found myself accidentally saying a few Chinese words! Pretty funny, though I doubt anyone even fully realized it.

At least two of the women were actually old French teachers, who taught French at various levels of the school system. Both of them said that after so many years of no longer teaching French, they had forgotten quite a bit and thus looked for opportunities such as these meet ups to continue practicing. In speaking about my professor, I mentioned about our end-of-semester dinner at a French restaurant in my city. I’m not sure if I really should have been or not, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear that at least two of them knew the two French restaurants in my city and one of them had just been to one three weeks prior. We also discussed a little bit about the issues many people face when trying to practice languages, such as the focus on others’ perceptions and the concern of making mistakes, as well as the role of technology which can be a hindrance to personal communication but could also be a powerful tool, such as for finding these meet ups. We also discussed various travels that we had done, and with the younger man next to me, discussed a little bit about philosophies and cultures around the world.

As I continued to let myself go with the flow of the conversation, my French sped up so that by the time we were in the last 30 minutes of the meeting, I was speaking fairly smoothly without many pauses – and I was no longer thinking in Chinese! As the conversations closed and we prepared to leave, I realized that it had been 2 1/2 hours! Not only did I manage for that long, but more importantly, I also only then realized how much my speech improved and sped up in those 2 1/2 hours.

The Analysis: How much do you really know? The effect of heavy speaking practice

Here I found something interesting about language practice, particularly when you have not practiced for a while. For about 3 years now, I have been saying that I do not really speak French – I can usually read it ok (and have of that is guessing from context or from similarity to Spanish – in other words, cheating, and involving words I would not think of when speaking), I sometimes do online research in French, but I can only understand some standard speech decently well, can write if I’m given a million years to get the right spelling, and speaking makes me sound like a beginner. You may be in a worse situation, where speaking is not the only thing that’s bad. In such a situation, a few moments of study, listening, drills, etc., may not allow you to see much improvement or truly assess your level – even doing such practice for a few minutes may discourage you because you will feel that you have confirmed that you have lost too much of the language and cannot speak. While I’m experienced enough to have known that this was not the case with me, it was definitely the impression I would get any time I tried speaking to anyone in French. However…

  • This opportunity forced me to speak for a long time, showing me that much of my French was still there and I simply needed to force it out and refresh what was too hard to get out.
  • I still place high value on knowing how to use spare minutes and seconds of free time to continue learning and maintaining, but that is barely any kind of real practice; it just deals with your knowledge. You can amass all the knowledge you want, but it won’t come out at a matching level until you actually practice using it; your brain needs to learn how to efficiently pick from your library of knowledge and put sentences together.
  • Remember, real life language use isn’t an exam – you can ask, you will be helped, and maybe you can check your dictionary. In this situation where everyone was a non-native speaker / learner and everyone was here to help each other, all I needed to do was ask and I would be told so I could move on. Almost everyone at some point had to ask about how to say something, or would get corrected, or would try their best anyway by using a similar word or, in the worst case scenario, a literal translation of English.
  • I was also surprised about something else, and that is, that despite my intermediate knowledge of French, I never thought I could converse this much. My studies have been mostly academic and relatively proper in writing, speech, vocabulary, and so forth, so there are a lot of colloquial and casual words and expressions that I don’t know. I was even still forgetting stupid words like “since,” but knew a lot more advanced words to express my thoughts on school, language learning, and even philosophy. Especially being with an older group of people, neologisms, slang, and other colloquialisms were not used, but the amount of conversation was still more than I thought I would have managed even at the height of my French skills over 6 years back. Having said that, I still managed to speed up my French speaking to a point much like what I remember from that high point.

In other words, speaking from personal experience, self-analyses, as well as readings of scientific articles and seeing how other people remember things, you should remember that the brain does NOT usually forget things absolutely. I would say it’s almost like the brain forgets how to access something, or gets lazy and makes that information retrieval less efficient, but with effort, the brain can piece together the apparently corrupt files and allow you to remember something. We simply usually do not need or have the time for such efforts. I once spent 5 minutes trying to piece together a memory before I finally remembered what I wanted to know. Twice I tried to remember how to pray the Our Father in Spanish, finding I couldn’t remember a thing past the first two lines, and then months later, when the thought occurred to me again, I suddenly remembered it nearly in its entirety! The brain can surprise you.

So next time you think you’ve forgotten a language, remember this: maybe the brain simply put that language deep in a storage shed due to lack of use. Maybe you need some dedicated time to dig through and find that hidden knowledge. Maybe you need a situation that will force you to find it AND use what you find AND make you keep finding it until you find as many of the language-skill boxes you can find in that old shed. You may be surprised how much of that language survived the storage and did NOT actually rot away.

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