Formal conversation in another language is a little scary and not much fun, but it’s easy. It requires a limited set of vocabulary that I’ve practiced over and over again, for years, like a script. Organic, familiar conversation, on the other hand, the kind you have after you already know someone, the kind that allows you to make jokes, discuss opinions, and tell a good story, is really hard in a foreign language. The way we speak, the way we gesture, and our own little idiosyncrasies and habits in our native language are physical manifestations of our personalities. When a foreign language changes your inflection, the way your mouth moves, the way your brain processes words, and renders your favorite interjections and expressions unusable, you feel hobbled and marooned. How do you translate a personality?
The more I get to know my French friends, the less I feel they know me. I’m never completely sure I’m getting my point across, or that it’s clear I’ve made a joke. I can’t reliably pick up on or convey nuance. In a way it’s an exciting challenge, but it’s also exhausting. It makes me miss not only being understood, but simply knowing whether or not I’ve been fully understood.