I'm quite eloquent, with Gallic wit and subtle turns of phrase, in my imagination. My accent is so perfect Parisians look incredulous: what, you're not French? C'est pas possible!
Because, that's what happens when we learn a new language, isn't it? After some hard work, our brains rewire themselves and the Gods of Language bestow upon us the Bilingual Crown. One day we wake up and have to decide, should we think in English or French today? Our dreams take turns. One night in French, the next in English. It's only fair. We express ourselves clearly and comfortably in our new tongue, with all the cultural references of a native speaker, because anything less would be downright frustrating, wouldn't it?
My reverie comes to an abrupt end when my French teacher asks the class what we did last weekend. If I had five minutes and access to Google Translate, I swear I could come up with something decent, something halfway approximating what I would say if I had been asked in English. Unfortunately, it's already my turn and instead of describing in vivid detail the spectacular David Bowie exhibition I'd seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Saturday, with its innovative use of sound and personal artifacts, I say, "I went to the museum. It was nice." Yep, that should cover it. Your turn!
In reality, I am a pretty decent French listener. I could even eavesdrop if I wanted to. But, instead of giving me hope, this just makes the gulf between what I can understand and what I can express that much more obvious. My French conversational partner sees me nodding and smiling and reacting to what they're saying. They volley back to me and the ball drops at my feet with a disappointing thud. I've been asked pointblank why I refuse to speak French when I'm obviously fluent. My response is, in English, just because you can read a poem doesn't mean you can (or should) write one.
To be honest, I have had some good conversations in French, but I'm not sure how to create the conditions for that to happen more often. It helps if the other person doesn't speak a lick of English, and it really helps if there's a bottle of wine involved. Usually though, the natural environment is the problem. Give me a game of vocabulary flash cards, and I can play all day, but that doesn't mean I can crack open a can of sparkling repartee anytime, anywhere. That would require me actually stringing those vocabulary words together, darn it. If I could speak in bullet-points, life would be much easier.
And, my constitutional shyness doesn't help the project along at all. There are some language students who are determined to express themselves at all costs, and frankly, I'm jealous. They're uninhibited making mistakes. They take their sweet time groping for words, because with practice, those words will become ever-ripe and ready to pluck whenever they want them. But, it takes awhile to get there, and from my current state of half-French to a future state of passable French to an even more distant state of solid French, stretches long, dangerous terrain, full of potential embarrassment and frustration. It's slow going, and you have to pack away your pride, get comfortable in the saddle and try to be content with small progress. Saying your order out loud at a restaurant instead of getting flustered and just pointing at the menu? Congratulations! Having a conversation that doesn't start with an apology about how bad your French is? Bravo! I just have to remember that one day, in the distance, with perseverance, I will be able to speak French without blushing.
And, in the meantime, I have my daydreams and my dictionary.