When I was in college, I had the wonderful opportunity to study in Paris, France for the fall semester of my junior year.
I had taken French in school from 7th-12th grade, so I had a good background of the language; however, I was rusty since I hadn’t kept up with it. Alma College had a program in Paris that not only connected us to the Alliance Françàise, where French was taught as a second language, but it also offered special courses in French history, art, and literature — all of them taught in French.
I lived in the home of an older French woman. She boarded international students like me, and so I had a housemate from South Korea and one from Texas. The basic rule in the home was that we spoke only French, and Madame held us to that. We were all very different, but we were unified in our desire to learn the language better and experience the French culture.
The three of us came and went throughout the day, but normally we had our evening meal together and engaged in conversation around the dinner table, in French, of course. Madame would offer simple discussion starters: “How did you spend your day?” Or “Tell us about your home town.” Stiltedly, we would open our mouths and hope that whatever French words came out made sense! Not surprisingly, we made lots of mistakes. The verb tense wasn’t right. The vocabulary word was neither French, English or Korean. Some nuance in the language made what we said have a completely unintended meaning. Our pronunciation was lacking.
Conversations were frequently slow and laborious! Sometimes I got so tongue-tied, afraid of saying something wrong, that I didn’t want to participate in the discussion. Other times, I started speaking and then froze up because I knew I had already made a blunder and didn’t want to muck it up any further.
Madame, who often seemed intimidating, would graciously intervene. In French, she would say, “Go ahead and finish your sentence. Then go back and fix it.” I’d take a deep breath and brave it out, speaking my mis-matched verbs and nouns to complete my thought. Then, once my sentence was spoken, I tried again to put it together in a more grammatically pleasing way.
Madame would nod and say “Bien!” She might offer a few tweaks so I could learn for next time; or if I still didn’t have it right, she’d say it correctly and have me repeat it. My housemates often asked clarifying questions or made helpful comments about what I was saying, and the conversation continued. I wasn’t the only one tripping over my words. We each had our moments of challenge as well as ease with the language. We learned to be patient with each other and praise each other just for trying, and we laughed good-naturedly at some of our gaffes.
It has been forty years since I sat at Madame’s dinner table. I have forgotten a lot of French since then, but her words continue to have an impact on me. When someone has something difficult to say and hesitates because it may not come our right or might be hurtful, I often repeat Madame’s invitation: “Go ahead and finish your sentence. Then go back and fix it.”
In an era where we are tempted to jump on someone before they finish a sentence because we disagree with what we think they are going to say, I’ve learned to begin from a position of grace and the assumption that what they have to say is worth hearing.
Often, they’ll stop mid-sentence and exclaim, “I don’t know how to say it without sounding like a jerk.” I channel my “inner-madame” and respond, “Go ahead and finish your sentence. Then go back and fix it.” Usually, once given a chance to articulate the thoughts behind their words, a completely different meaning surfaces and it opens the door to deeper, more meaningful conversation.
I had a wonderful semester in France. The most valuable learning in those four months was how to communicate with others when we don’t seem to be speaking the same language.
Nancy Jo Dederer, pastor of the Circleville Presbyterian Church, is a member of the Pickaway County Ministerial Association.