João sat on the side of the dormitory party, quietly observing the others, students from France and all over the world who, like him, had come to Paris to study. João had arrived here only a few weeks before from his home in Rio de Janeiro and had already fallen in love with the City of Lights. Tonight, however, as in almost every other situation here, the normally talkative boy found himself resigned to silence. Even after years of French classes, João didn’t feel confident enough to speak with the natives. He needed time to formulate his sentences correctly, often couldn’t remember the precise vocabulary word he wanted, and above all, was embarrassed by his pronunciation.
João spent most of the party listening to the others speak. One girl in particular caught his attention, not for the usual reasons that girls catch a boy’s attention, but because she spoke boisterously throughout the entire evening. Like, João, she had just arrived from abroad — from Madrid, he gathered. Any casual observer would have instantly identified her as Spanish by her marked accent and mangled syntax.
João wasn’t sure whether to be horrified or amused by the girl. Some of the French people at the party couldn’t hide their amusement, mimicking her with loud guffaws. He was happy to have restricted his conversation to the few things that he knew how to say well; he surely wouldn’t have wanted to be the butt of French jokes for the way he spoke! He would just have to wait for his French to greatly improve before he could converse with people here in the same way that he could converse with people back home.
But as the months went by, João grew quieter and quieter. He had mastered a nearly perfect French pronunciation of some key phrases that he used every day- he felt very confident ordering his morning café au lait and croissant- but he rarely found the courage to say more than what was absolutely necessary and spent most of his day in silence.
One day, while he was riding his bike home from long hours in the library, a car flew out of a side street with no warning and struck João to the ground. Though dazed by the blow, he jumped quickly to his feet. Staring at the driver through the windshield, he found himself speechless. After a few seconds of silence, the man tore off, leaving João briefly dumbfounded in the middle of the street until the squeal of screaming tires announced the abrupt stop of the car. A young girl was standing in front of the car, laying into the driver in a torrent of angry and fluent French. Within minutes, the driver was at João’s side, begging for forgiveness. When it was all over, João had obtained not only a heartfelt apology, but a ride to the hospital and insurance information to pay for medical costs and bike repairs.
João received something else from the bike accident: an important lesson. The girl, his savior, was Ana, the fellow student from Madrid whose French he had so disdained at the beginning of the year. He was sure that none of the people along the street who had heard her give the irresponsible driver a piece of her mind had laughed at her. In fact, the driver looked as if he had seen a ghost after her sermon. Ana, for however sloppy her grammar and pronunciation had been, had obviously made great strides in her French during her time in Paris through constant trial and error while João had let his fear of making mistakes inhibit his progress. On his way back from the hospital, João thought of a quote from Winston Churchill that he had read in a book earlier that day: “The maxim ‘Nothing avails but perfection’ may be spelled ‘paralysis’.”