France in the summer is lovely. I remember the buildings of yellow stone, ancient beyond belief to my American eyes; the canals whose water lilies inspired Monet; the countryside, passing in a blur of fertile green as I peered out the window of a high-speed train. I spent two weeks visiting Paris and the region of Franche-Comte, and I couldn’t get enough of the scenery or the people.
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It was the second-to-last day of my exchange trip. Nineteen other American students and I were visiting Dijon without our host families. I sat in a park with my friend Jasmine, eating a cheese-and-baguette sandwich. We had just walked Dijon’s Parcours de la Chouette—the Owl’s Trail —and I had seen again my favorite things about France: cobblestones, cafés, historic architecture. I couldn’t believe that in twenty-four short hours we would leave.
As Jasmine and I chatted, a little boy walked up. He was nine or ten and, like most French children, dressed in very chic clothing.
“Hello,” he said in heavily-accented English. “How are you?”
“I’m doing well,” I said.
He ran away.
Jasmine and I chuckled. After two weeks of complete immersion in French—which we spoke scarcely better than the boy spoke English—we recognized that urge to run away. It’s terrifying to speak another language when you know exactly how bad you sound. But over our two weeks, Jasmine and I mastered the art of Making Mistakes and Trying Anyway. If my host mother didn’t understand me, I tried a different phrase. If my host father spoke too fast, I asked him to slow down. I spoke confidently even when I felt completely unsure of myself. And generally, people understood.
Soon the boy was back, this time with friends.
A little girl (in a stylish skirt and leggings) stepped forward as the unofficial spokesperson. “Where are you from?” she asked us in French.
I said that we were from California. Jasmine explained that we were exchange students staying with French host families. And the children understood us, despite our awful accents. The girl asked how we liked France, and told us that her class was visiting the park to celebrate the end of school. Her friends clustered around, wide-eyed.
As another girl passed, the boy called out to her, saying something in rapid-fire French that I didn’t comprehend. But I caught her response quite clearly:
“Americans who speak French well?” she said. “Ce n’est pas possible!” (It’s not possible!)
That moment proved to me the value of Making Mistakes and Trying Anyway. Children everywhere are infamous for sharing their “unfiltered” thoughts, with sometimes hurtful results, but to me, the girl’s astonishment was a true compliment. Her unguarded disbelief proved that we exceeded expectations.
It is also a reminder of a valuable lesson: no matter how bad we are at something, we owe it to ourselves to overcome our fear of failure and just try. Some of my friends spent the entire trip smiling mutely because they were afraid to speak French and be wrong. I discovered that making the effort is worth the embarrassment. The world didn’t end when I forgot words and messed up verb tenses; by letting myself make mistakes, I connected with French culture in a way I couldn’t have otherwise. The same is true of anything, from playing an instrument to speaking a new language: the important thing, the rewarding thing, is to swallow your pride and try.
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