Little by little, day by day, my french is returning. Before arriving in Togo, I knew the french I learned many years ago would be an asset. But at the same time, I also knew that in the 13 1/2 years since graduating (yikes, I'm really aging myself here!) the amount that I've used french is so rare that my verbal skills have gone downhill. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I wasn't the best french immersion student. Any opportunity to avoid speaking was taken and exploited. For that matter, I was a very quiet student in general, I'm not sure that the french had anything to do with it. Point being, that I didn't ever become amazing at french... that I recall.
So when I arrived, I was definitely hesitant to use my french. Even "bonjour" was stretching it a bit, though I'll happily listen and try and figure out what people are saying (no easy task when there's a new West African accent to learn, plus the fact that most people here will switch back and forth between Ewe and French). Screening day pushed me to speak, as there wasn't always a translator (day worker) beside me. So I started out with short, simpler things. Generally. Being on the wards, I use the translators, but I also am slowly, slowly venturing on my own to speak directly to the patients. Of course, sometimes that fails miserably when they turn out not to know any french at all!
A few weeks ago, when I was working a shift on the general ward, I tried my hand at doing the patient teaching. There were translators around, but they had other things I really needed them to do, and the patient spoke perfect french. So instead, the translators listened in on me as I did my best to do their job! It's in making the effort that you have the chance to shine... or totally bomb! The words I don't know, that they didn't teach me in high school (or perhaps that I just didn't pay attention to at the time), are ones that are essential to explaining things to patients. Words like wound (plaie), swelling (engonfler), strain (forcer), bleed (saigner). And then, there are the words that embarass me, because I sit there trying to figure them out... only to be told that it's pretty much the same word in English and French, and that's why I can't figure out some other word to call it. Such as tumor (tumeur), urinate (uriner), cancer (cancer), scrotum (scrotum).
So I sat there, teaching my patient what to expect for his surgery that afternoon, and what to do or not do... and I got stuck a few times. Happily, the translators were working right beside me, and would provide the words I needed. Apparently, my french is not that bad, or pretty good, depending on who I ask. I'm working on it, and the more I try, surprise surprise, the better I get... or at least the more natural it feels. The other day I actually started french conversations with translators (as opposed to jumping straight for english), and almost tried using the french on my other friends, who most definitely don't know french. Unfortunate for them, but it's a good sign for me, it means it's coming back. It's starting to become natural again.
I realized though, that the french I learned was very much situational. It was appropriate for a school setting during the day. I'm used to greeting everyone with "bonjour." But bonjour is similar to good-morning (actually it means good day, but here it's definitely treated as good-morning), and so as the day progresses you change your greeting. Never did that in school, good day sufficed for the day time hours.
Little by little I'm learning the nuances of using french more for everyday life kind of things. And I'm a little excited that I still remember as much as I do. It's nice being able to chat with your patients!