This afternoon, for the first time since I arrived in France (this time round), I spent a long period of time having conversations in French. It was depressing.
I studied French for ten years at school and university and got a first class honours degree. I've read Les Misérables in the original and I do French crossowords on train journeys. I love speaking French and I've done my best not to forget it over the past few years. And yet, recently, every time I try to speak it, I feel awkward.
Talking to my friend this afternoon was interesting though, because more than I could, he was able to put his finger on what was wrong.
The first thing was my accent. For years I have struggled to produce a French “ou” sound and although, I can do it, I still have to think about it in speaking, especially when it comes next to an “u” sound ( which is much more like the one that Scottish people use in English), as in “pas du tout”. Recently, though, it's been the nasal vowels that have become my real bugbear. I think it's largely because I'm not good at learning words by hearing them, so I tend to remember the written form. There are some rules about nasalisation, such as that “in” at the beginning of a word is nasalised when followed by a consonant but not when followed by a vowel, but if there is a rule that works every time, I don't know it. We don't really have all these nasal sounds in English, and particularly not in a Scottish accent, yet my friend said that I was using them far too much in French, and especially when I didn't sound sure about what I was saying, so I think I must be hyper-correcting myself and putting them in when they're not there.
The second thing he pointed out was that I was using lots of complicated sentence structures which weren't always usual (or even correct) in everyday spoken French, and we decided that this was a technique that I was using to buy time when I didn't know exactly what to say.
To be honest, I think most of my problems come down to lack of confidence. My French is a little bit rusty at the moment, as well as suffering from interference from Italian, but because I feel as though it should be perfect, I have too much pride to say something that is simple and wrong, so I end up saying things in a complicated way (that is also often wrong) instead.
I suppose I either need to get practising or learn to accept that I'll never speak immaculate French. After all, as my friend was kind enough to point out, most French people don't speak it perfectly either!