I’ve been living in France for 14 years. I’ve been learning French since I was 5. I am a naturalized French citizen. And I consider myself bilingual. Although I’m not bilingual like my daughter is bilingual. As my Australian friend N explained the other day to his son, “you speak French like someone who has always lived in France; I speak French like someone who learned it and has been speaking it for a long time.”
There are so many daily activities – paying bills, rent, dealing with administration, having children! – that I would not even know where to begin with any of this in the US because I’ve only ever experienced them in France.
And in my daily French interactions, I do not need a dictionary. I no longer keep a running list of words to check when I get home. And I definitely don’t stop someone mid-sentence to ask them what such and such means because I usually do understand. Or I think I understand.
This last point in a common point on contention with my husband because, sometimes (often) after a long explanation of something or other, I’ll realize I don’t fully understand everything. He says I should stop him when I don’t understand. But the problem is that I don’t realize I don’t understand until I really don’t understand at which point I’m totally lost.
So when he left a message for the plumber yesterday because our heat and hot water weren’t working, I said to him, “isn’t that really informal?” He said, “is what informal?” So I said, “des enfants en basage?” (which is an expression I’d always heard, especially recently with all the friends having babies and lots of kids to lug around hence des enfants en basage). So he said slowly without liaison between the sounds, “des enfants en bas age…des jeunes enfants”. The light bulb went off. (And I was actually too embarrassed to tell my dear husband what I thought I’d understood it actually meant!) It just proves that there are things you think you understand but don’t and things you understand without ever really understanding no matter how bilingual you are.