It’s been nearly a year since we arrived here. Today I was in my office doing a bit of online research for some local shops and businesses. Last year I would have been completely frustrated by all the French-only websites with paragraphs of information while being lucky to find two sentences in English.
Today, however, I turned my research into my homework for French class. I copied the text of one of the pages into a Word document, then translated the whole thing into English. Wow, I can do that now!
I’m not claiming to be fluent or anything and I still stumble at cocktail parties; I still prefer my French movies with English subtitles. But I can communicate with our cook. I can read and understand short articles in Jeune Afrique magazine. I can initiate a conversation, even if it’s only to find out if the other person knows more English than I do French. I’m trying to come up with a good lawyer/avocado pun because they are the same word in French: avocat. I can finally read reviews of Bujumbura shops and restaurants online!
We noticed when we were in France and Switzerland that we could check in to our hotels and order in restaurants and the locals did not automatically say to us, “Speak in English,” as they are wont to do with annoying Americans. But they didn’t even recognize us as Americans at first! All they knew was that we weren’t native French speakers but we were more than tourist French speakers. In Europe, our African French apparently sounds different from the French that’s learned in the United States. We learn a different accent here. Although to me, the French here sounds a lot like the French I learned in school; it’s much easier to understand Burundian French over France French.
When babies are exposed to more than one language, they tend to start talking later, but they have higher comprehension and they tend to speak in more complex structures than single words.
I think I'm in that absorbing, comprehending stage of language learning. A few weeks ago we spent a weekend with some people who spoke almost no English, and I understood at least 80% of the conversation. I didn't say too much, though. I think it's shyness that's holding me back from blabbing in French, not necessarily ability. (Let's face it, I'm fairly quiet in any language.)