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When I started working as a temporary visa clerk at a French consulate, I thought I had a general idea of what working a job that would require me to speak French on a daily basis would be like. It couldn't be THAT different from my studies, right? Wrong! My semester abroad in southern France may have given me an idea of what it's like to live and go to school in France and having it on my resumé certainly helped me get this job, but working as an American in an office that operates primarily in French was not an experience I could easily imagine until I was in it.
1. Not Always Knowing When to Switch Back and Forth
The overall guidelines I got when I was hired were that we would talk to each other in French and the clients in English. This sounded pretty straightforward at the time but in practice it meant sometimes accidentally switching mid-sentence. Many conversations were neither entirely in English nor entirely in French but in "Franglais." With that said, I felt pretty badass when I did manage to effectively switch from talking to a client in English to answering a co-worker's question in French without any mistakes.
2. Everybody's Dialects
My co-workers came from several different places in France and thus spoke differently from one another. Some of them even used words and expressions that other Frenches didn't understand. My own accent when I speak French was kind of Frankensteined together from habits I picked up between my semester in Provence, my former teachers, and characters in movies. On the flip side, most of my French co-workers had never met someone from Michigan and sometimes had trouble understanding me when we talked in English.
3. The Puns
Adding another language in the mix doubles any given individual's corny humor potential. Does every bilingual person love making puns that you have to understand at least two languages in order to get or is it just the ones I've met so far? And yes, French Dad Jokes are just as corny as our Dad Jokes.
4. Realizing Just How Much Native Speakers of Your Second Language Accommodate You as a Non-Native Speaker
At the consulate, we usually all ate together at a table by the copy machine during our full hour lunch break. No sad desk lunches here! That meant I got the experience of trying to follow multiple conversations in my non-native language at once. I noticed a very clear difference between how my colleagues talked to me in work mode and how they talked to each other in relaxed mode. And don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that it's a bad thing or that they were talking to me like I'm stupid. On the contrary, this experience made me appreciate such accommodation more.
5. Superiors Asking for Corrections on Their English
My first day on the job, the deputy consul general (that's the second biggest boss) told me, "we're so excited to have an American working with us." That wasn't something I ever thought I would hear from a Frenchman, but I soon figured out why. The "I want to practice my English with you" instinct is not limited to the local students you meet on a study abroad trip. I earned the nickname "language adviser" in the visa department because my colleagues asked me at least once a day if a sentence they typed in an email to a client sounded right. I even proofread an email my boss sent to his landlord about negotiating the rent. I was happy to help and felt really important.