My French sucks…but it won’t for long
Before we moved to Paris, I had planned to take an intensive course in French and become fluent in three months. Ha! That’s the joke of the century.
Once we landed here, spending every day in French classes (instead of exploring the streets of Paris) was the last thing I wanted to do, so I sought out a private teacher and started meeting twice a week with someone who was teaching at one of the language schools. I hated it.
Four years of high-school French was a worthless pile of learning this complicated language. With that foundation, I could recite the days of the week, count to twenty and say “Je m’appelle Adrian. Comment allez-vous?” Pathetic. So, when the teacher tried to get me to utter anything, it just wasn’t coming out of my mouth and I hated learning French and hated the teacher for pushing me. That’s when I stopped the private lessons and started participating in a conversation group.
The conversation group at an Anglophone organization was perfect. For one year I sat there and said nothing, just listened. It didn’t matter — I made friends and began to get used to hearing French, even if still nothing would come out of my mouth. About a year-and-a-half after moving to Paris, a few words started to drift out, but only the absolute basics. I could order in restaurants, ask where to find the toilets, ask the vendor for a half-kilo of carrots and just enough to ‘survive’ in a French environment.
In an effort to ‘force’ myself to speak, I took on the project to start my own conversation group and fortunately found a willing partner, the then director of Berlitz Champs-Elysées, Marie-Elisabeth Crochard. Parler Parlor met three times a week and thanks to the regular meetings the words started to come out of my mouth, however incorrectly. At the time I thought in three years I’d be fluent. Ha! That’s another joke.
Fourteen years of participating in the conversation group taught me how to speak French. The system worked well enough. It took a good ten years to get to the point of feeling comfortable and for the last 18 years now I have survived in France with a bad American accent, a rather large vocabulary and what I have discovered, is very imperfect grammar. I never learned to write French and reading was forever a struggle.
All this time, I didn’t really need it. Everything I do is in English (with Anglophone clients and friends), with the exception of speaking with contractors who are usually Eastern Europeans with French as bad as mine.
Then, the big six-oh birthday started to loom over my head and the idea of self improvement (before it was too late) kicked in. You may recall that I have taken up tango (briefly), yoga (there’s a class chez moi tonight if you would like to join us!)…and to top it off, I’ve started private French lessons!
Here’s the funny part: my teacher lives in San Francisco! Insane, right? Every week we meet on Skype at 6 p.m. Paris time, 9 a.m. San Francisco time, for one hour. She’s French, a very qualified teacher, and it just happens that she moved to San Francisco a few years ago. As it turns out, this is all a big plus.
First of all, her English is perfect and that makes it very easy for us to compare the languages, the nuances of the meanings and the grammar. Being bi-cultural as well now that she’s ‘Americanized,’ means she understands (oh too well) when I’m complaining about one cultural clash or another, so there is much about which we can discuss. Because we’re on Skype, she can type out the words and phrases and I can type back. As it’s a private lesson, we can work on the specific problems I have with the language without worrying about anyone else in the class. It’s all about me, me, me and how selfishly fun is that?
When the lesson is over, I print it out and put it in a notebook to study later (although I never do, but it feels like I’m making an effort when I’m really not). She sends me homework to do. I print it out and never do it. No worries, we’ll do it together in our next lesson.
I pay her using PayPal and it can be in dollars or euros. It’s all hilariously fabulously fun and rewarding. It’s not a replacement for the conversation group (which is really the best way to get the words to roll off your tongue), but it is a way to fine tune my French. And one thing I’ve discovered is just how bad my French really is. You know, the more you know, the more you realize how little you know? (Old talmudic Jewish saying.) It’s true. My French sucks…but it won’t for long.
So, if you’re setting out to learn French, here’s some valuable advice: Don’t do what I did, do what YOU need to do, but no matter what, have fun doing it!
Sandrine de Paris
Institut de Français in Villefranche-sur-Mer
True French Immersion
Private French Lessons in Paris
06.65.56.80.81 or email [email protected]
A la prochaine…
Editor, Parler Paris
(with Marie-Elisabeth Crochard)
P.S. I hope there is someone out there willing to record the newest episode of House Hunter’s International for me so I can also see it for the first time! That would be delightful! “Searching for Style and Space in Paris” – Episode HHINT-4107H,” airing, October 27th at 11:30 pm ET/PT and 2:30 am ET/PT. Then send it straight on to [email protected]. Many thanks!