Chez Soi

Adventures of a Year Abroad

How to Feel Stupid (intentionally)


Moving to a new country without speaking the language is probably the boldest and most courageous thing one can do. I now admire everyone who has ever done it.

You know why?

Not knowing a language complicates everything. For example, week 1 here, I bought a face product that I thought I had “figured out”, and … basically burned part of my face in using it. First degree burns. Scars will be with me for the next six months, at least.

Another thing: It makes it super hard to navigate ordinary life. We asked our concierge to take some clothes to the dry cleaner, since I was sure I would be overcharged if I did it in English. I couldn’t figure out how to ask her the pricing and why I was asking her (it wasn’t for the convenience) and then nearly died of shock when… 50Euros later, we got the three items back. I die. Similarly, it took Curt about 5 phone calls and 10 emails to try and get the electricity in our name. Finally (and thank goodness), someone he works with bailed us out. Otherwise, we would have had the electricity in our name juuuuust about the time we left the country.

And the fundamental thing is how vulnerable you feel. Not that vulnerability is a terrible thing. There is a great deal of power in vulnerability as Brene Brown has taught us. But no one said vulnerability feels good.

Kiddo and I have been taking French lessons every day. While we know many people come here and only learn the basics (Bonjour, L’Addition, etc), that’s not what we want for our experience here. (It’s the same reason we chose not to enroll the kiddo to the many good American schools in Paris. We don’t want to live outside the culture, we want to embrace the French culture.)

We chose a language school that has an emphasis in smaller classes. Kiddo had 6 other kids learning with. The first week, I was with 8 folks, this week was 14 so the level of understanding was a little broader – thus harder to learn. We are also studying using Duolingo, which is actually quite good for teaching you.

Week 1, I was so hopeful and then created index cards and am a learning fiend. Kiddo was drilling me on the index cards and in the process, I was really noticing how much he knew. But after week 2, I was mostly tired of not knowing anything. I know, I know, it’s a hard language and it takes time. But it gets tiring to pay attention for 4-5 hours every day, and still realizing that words I had “learned” over the last two weeks still can’t pop to mind.

Over the weekend, kiddo couldn’t even introduce himself to our landlady with a simple “Bonjour”. Funny thing, he knew that before the two weeks of expensive language lessons… but now, nothing. We couldn’t do anything in French from ordering a simple meal to well, anything. When we were ordering today, I heard my husband simply saying “thanks” in full on American-English, and I just wanted to throw my hands up in the air.

I’m super-sad at the idea of sitting in class again this week.

But, at the same time, I know that the path of learning is to live with discomfort. Feeling stupid is part of the path to knowing. It seems you cannot know something later without the “not knowing”… now. You have to leave enough space in terms of time and perhaps suspend self-judgment to allow new information to come in. At least, that’s the idea I’ve seen be relevant in other domains.

I keep imagining that kiddo and I will look back at these days of learning French together with great memories. But, this imagining could easily be a mirage. Time will tell. Off in the distance, it could be a mirage. Or it could be our future.

Taken Thursday, July 24th at the playdate we had with other folks from l'ecole Accord.

Taken Thursday, July 24th at the playdate we had with other folks from l’ecole Accord.

Okay, off to go see the Tour de France which is going by down the block from us.



Author: nilofermerchant

Strategist. Passionate about igniting cultures of innovation. HBR Writer, O'Reilly Author (published January 2010) of The New How, and former CEO of Rubicon.

4 thoughts on “How to Feel Stupid (intentionally)

  1. I assume you’ve read Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik, oui?

  2. You are brave, you are determined, and you are human. Don’t give up, push forward.

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