French in Less than 20 Years
In preparing for the upcoming Webinar I’m doing for the Federation of the Alliance Française and its members this coming Saturday, I reflected on my experience learning French…or at least trying to!
Before moving to France, I had high school French. You know what that means. It means virtually no French at all. My courses were taught by a man from an Italian family in New Orleans whose accent in French wasn’t anything we wanted to emulate. I got straight “A’s,” but that didn’t help one iota upon arriving in France. I still couldn’t get much out of my mouth, other than the usual five words or phrases: “bonjour,” “au revoir,” “merci beaucoup,” “s’il vous plaît,” “pardon.”
I lie. I could also say “café crème,” “baguette,” “reservations,” and a few more essentials, but putting the words together to make a sentence was the biggest challenge. Before moving, I had it in my head that upon arrival in Paris, I’d take an intensive language course and be fluent in three months.
Ha ha ha ha ha, you say? No joke. Wish I had known then what I know now. To become fluent in a language in three months, especially French which is one of the world’s toughest, you have to either be a genius, be immersed 100 percent in the language or be very young so your brain is a sponge. I fit none of those categories, nor did I want to spend my first days living in Paris holed up in a classroom, so I just didn’t and struggled along.
Fortunately, in an international city such as Paris, French isn’t as required for survival as it would be living in other cities or the countryside. And fortunately, I discovered an alternative—a French-English conversation group sponsored by an Anglophone organization of which I was a member. So devoted was I to the group, that I became its coordinator and later started a group of my own in partnership with the director of a language school in Paris. We called it “Parler Parlor.”
Parler Parlor operated for 20 years and helped thousands of people practice speaking both French and English. We met three times a week in various venues over the years. The method really worked to take what you learned in a classroom and apply it in real conversation. Groups of six are formed, half Anglophone and half Francophone. The members spoke for 45 minutes in one language and then 45 minutes in the other. It’s a true exchange of both languages with native speakers having real open conversations about anything they wished to talk about. And they did talk about everything! We learned a lot from one another, but mostly we learned how to listen and understand, how to put simple phrases together, and how not to be intimidated by our own levels of the language.
In fact, that’s the most important thing we learned—how to feel 100 percent comfortable in the language regardless of how well we spoke or understood. That might seem strange to you, but if you can remove the fear of speaking badly, or not understanding fully, you can accomplish great strides in progressing. For example, if I don’t know the right word, I’ll just say, “Comment dire blah, blah, blah?,” and someone will be helpful enough to share the right word. Then, I won’t forget that new word I’d just learned. If I don’t understand what someone has said, I’ll say, “Excusez-moi, mais je n’ai pas bien compris.” And then, it would be repeated or explained in a different way so that it could be understood. The point is not to be held back by your own lack of self confidence!
The downside to relying on conversation to do the heavy lifting of learning is that you won’t get the benefit of truly learning to read or write. That’s where I seriously screwed up. After 26 years in France, I can speak and be understood. I can understand a lot, but I still don’t effectively or efficiently read or write. And that’s just plain dumb. If I needed it more for my livelihood, I would certainly make the effort. But, as you see, I’m still living my life mostly in English while the French and their language encircle me.
It took me way too long to learn the language. After one year without effectively learning to speak, I thought maybe after three years I would. After three years of still struggling, I thought maybe after 10 years. After 10 years I could survive, but still not felt fluent. It’s been 26 years and I can speak with some certainty, but I’m still missing the foundation the classes would have given me. I still can’t watch a French film without subtitles, still can’t read a novel and forget writing a letter! I admit to using online translators out of laziness and finding alternative ways of saying things I’ve still never mastered (such as the subjunctive or would-could-should).
I admit it. I screwed up. So, take my advice and learn some French! You can live without it in many cities in France, but you’ll be a whole lot happier with a certain level of the language, not only with which to survive, but to fully integrate into French life.
One big personal benefit of Parler Parlor was Parler Paris. Parler Paris was the communiqué for Parler Parlor—a way of reaching all of our members. That’s how this Nouvellettre® got started, way back in March of 1998. And it has survived and is going strong. If I had to do it all over again, I would have enrolled in classes at the Alliance Française long before moving here so that the foundation would have been set and the conversation group would have been the icing on the cake.
This evening I’m having dinner with my one-time partner in the conversation group, Marie-Elisabeth Fitère, who once lived in the U.S. teaching French before moving back to Paris to run a language school. She’s fully retired now and enjoying the good life split between Paris and Marseille. We don’t see each other often enough, but it’s traditional to celebrate our October birthdays together, hence our rendez-vous tonight. It has always been our habit to speak English together since my level of French didn’t match her level of English…until now. Now, we can move fluidly between the two and understand each other even more profoundly.
A la prochaine…
Adrian Leeds Group
P.S. The Alliance Française Webinar already has 10 percent more registrations than Zoom will allow, so I suggest if you already registered, you will want to arrive early to be sure to be let in! Normally, there are about 25 percent “no shows,” so if that is the case, hopefully everyone will have a chance to participate!
P.P.S. I apologize for the link to the Earful Tower podcast in Monday’s Nouvellettere® not working correctly, so here’s the right one.