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Parlez-Vous Franais? Perfectly or Pathetically?

When we first moved to France in 1994, the only French in my repertoire was three-years-worth of high-school French with a teacher who was American, but Italian descent, who had a strong New Orleans accent. He would enter the class and say, “BOHN-CHOOR, MAYS AHN-FAHN, COME-OHN TAH-LAY VOO?” And we didn’t know any better. The students didn’t speak a word of French in the classroom, so he was our sole frame of reference. (Now, there is a more advanced program to promote the French language in Louisiana. Check out to learn more!)

A few years of traveling to France helped increase vocabulary enough to order in restaurants, and perhaps to tell the taxi where to take us, but that was the extent of my knowledge. It was pathetic.

Before setting off for a one-year sabbatical in Paris, I perused the ads for the French schools in the FUSAC (France USA Contacts Magazine) and decided that I’d take an intensive course that would render me fluent within three months…or at least, that’s what I thought would be possible! Are you now getting a good laugh over this insane idea?

Yes, it was insane. Firstly, spending every day in an intensive course in a classroom in Paris didn’t seem like how I wanted to spend my first days in the City of Light. The only thing I really wanted to do was ‘play’ and explore this new magnificent
city. So instead, I chose to take private lessons twice a week.

Three months went by and I still couldn’t get a word out of my mouth as hard as the teacher would try. At that point I thought maybe in a year, I would have achieved more.

Within that year, I started to participate in and eventually take over the coordination of a French-English conversation group at an Anglophone organization. After six months, I still couldn’t get a word out of my mouth. The words were in my head, but to utter even one (except for “bonjour,” “au revoir,” “merci,” “s’il vous plait”…) was as difficult and painful as pulling teeth. Comprehension was even harder. Even if I could speak, I didn’t understand what anyone said!

The truth was that as long as I was living and working among English–speakers, I didn’t need the French. So, instead of ‘beating myself up’ over the lack of achievement, I decided to relax, let it come naturally, and participate even more in French-English conversation — to the point that with a partner (Marie-Elisabeth Crochard Fitère, a then Director of Berlitz Champs-Elysées), we started our own conversation group, “Parler Parlor,” now in existence for more than 11 years!

That first year in Paris went by and my level of French did improve, but it was clear it would take three years at that pace to seriously make a difference. Then three years went by, but it was clear it would take ten years at that pace to seriously make a difference. Then ten years went by and finally, finally, I could say that I could communicate in French…but not very well. In fact, even now 15 years later, I can communicate effectively, but still don’t read well and don’t write at all. I know. It’s pathetic.

The reason I’m telling you this whole ‘pathetic’ story is not for my benefit, but yours. The “medium is the message.”

First of all, don’t be intimidated about learning the language. As an adult, it’s more difficult to hear and make new sounds. Musicians are known to have more of a propensity for learning languages, but mostly, we all have the same mental hurdles to overcome. As they say, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” it is patently untrue. ‘Old dogs’ may not learn as quickly as they did when they were young, but with time and patience, most ‘older dogs’ can be taught to do anything that a ‘young dog’ can.

Secondly, don’t expect so much from yourself as I did! To be really fluent in a new language takes time and effort. Without working at it, lazy as I was, you won’t get very far. That’s the ‘old dog’ part of ‘time and patience.’

True, one can live in Paris (more than in other parts of France) without much French now that the Parisians are so fluent in English, but you simply won’t have as much fun! Now that I can seriously flirt and joke with the waiters, even with a strong American accent, I get way better service! And I can tell you, when you have to deal with the plumber or the clerk at the post office or a “fonctionnaire” (civil servant) at the “Préfecture” (Prefect of Police), you will be very happy to have a certain level of French slip more easily off your tongue!

So, what are the best ways to go about learning French? I’m no expert language pedagogue, but after years of working within the industry I can provide a certain level of advice.

Start with classes in your home country before you arrive to give yourself a foundation. The Alliance Française is an organization whose mission is to promote French language and culture outside France. It has 1071 locations in 133 different countries! Each is independently run and therefore some are better than others, but it’s a powerful network outside of France. The best way to find the one nearest you is by searching the Internet for “Alliance Française” and then your city, state or country.

Once in France, your choices are much wider! There are many language schools and they offer a wide variety of programs that are designed to suit your needs. Here in Paris, many of the members of Parler Parlor have attended “Lutèce Langue” and found the program and its teachers very helpful. They offer small groups of three to six students which make learning easier and you can choose the intensity of the course you take. The location is central and the classrooms are very pleasant. When you are a student at Lutèce Langue, your membership with Parler Parlor is free — so that’s an added benefit.

Many language courses don’t offer real conversational practice, so if yours doesn’t, Parler Parlor is a perfect “après vente” addition to your learning experience. The way it works is simple: we form groups of six people, half Anglophone, half Francophone. The group speaks 45 minutes in one language and then 45 minutes in the other. The members of the group correct each other and the topics are completely free-form. It’s a wonderful way to become comfortable with your own level of French while making friends from all over the world. And it really works! If it weren’t for Parler Parlor, I wouldn’t be speaking at all…that’s for sure!

And then of course, there is the total immersion program of schools like the Institut de Français in Villefranche-sur-Mer. My friend writes, “The group is lovely this year. There is a range of nationalities. It’s so much fun to connect with people from all over the world.”

She and so many others have told me the same things about the school — dozens of people I know, in fact: “This is the best French course I have ever taken and each time it gets better. It is very humbling to start over like a child learning to speak for the first time. The teachers at the school are like role models for what every parent should be like teaching their child how to speak correctly — they are encouraging and supportive and fun. All the students are supportive of each other. It is such a nurturing environment to learn French in. Not to mention the incredible location on the Côte d’Azur. Your view every day from the school is the ocean and beautiful sky and violet flowers. The food is heaven…most students put on a little weight from Natalie’s traditional Niçoise cooking…but it is so worth it.”

Whether you start at home, take private lessons, a classroom course, a full immersion or just practice speaking in a conversation group…there is no question that learning French will enrich your French experience and yes, it’s all really worth it…especially to be able to successfully flirt with the waiters!

In Villefranche-sur-Mer
A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris

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Respond to AdrianP.S. Parlez-vous Français? Here’s how:

Alliance Française Anywhere in the World
When you contact them, be sure to tell them Adrian Leeds of Parler Paris sent you.

Parler Parlor French-English Conversation
Contact Adrian or Elisabeth at [email protected]

Lutèce Langue
Contact Eriko Pagnon at [email protected] and be sure to tell her Adrian Leeds sent you.

Institut de Français
Contact Fréderic Latty at [email protected] and be sure to tell him Adrian Leeds sent you.


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