IMG_1871How do you feel about speaking a foreign language, even if it’s just a few words? Do you dive in and learn a few phrases? Or do you cross your fingers and hope that somebody will speak English? There are just too many languages that don’t resemble each other at all; it’s impossible to learn everything or even several, but a few phrases can engender a lot of goodwill.

Sometimes you have to get creative. When I first went to China, the country had two currencies, one for locals and one for foreigners. Well, actually, foreigners got “foreign exchange certificates,” which looked like money even if officially they weren’t. They had engravings of famous sights. So when I wanted to know whether I was going the right direction to the Temple of Heaven, I stopped someone on the street and showed them a note with the Temple of Heaven on it, pointing at the picture and then at the street, with eyebrows rising as a question. The guy was fascinated by the strange bank note, which he had never seen before. He was with a friend was so nervous he was practically wrenching the friend’s hand off his arm. Then he carefully and laboriously said: “Do. You. Speak. English?” Bingo! I had run into the one guy who could communicate with me, because in the 1980s, your average Chinese on the street didn’t speak other languages. I was jumping for joy–yes! I speak English! And he twisted and pulled his friend’s hand, took a deep breath and blurted out: “GO FORWARD!”

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I have no good photos for this post, so here are some new shots of our AirBnB in Carcassonne, called l’Ancienne Tannerie.

The facts have been lost in the fog of passing years, but I think my francophilia dates to reading Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans, about the audacious redhead and her adventures in Paris. I was simultaneously sad for her–boarding school! with nuns! and apendicitis!–and insanely jealous–PARIS!!!

I made do with posters of Paris on my walls until I finally got to go to the City of Light in person. I had four years of high school French, which I thought made me pretty darn good. Memories of my first trip to Paris also another thing mostly obscured by the fog of passing years, but I am sure of one thing, which is that I didn’t speak (or hear) as well as I thought.IMG_1897Years later, I took adult French classes at the New School in New York. One teacher was actually French and had us do the weirdest exercises–she would dictate a paragraph from a book, and we’d have to write it down, punctuation and all. You could end up with a negative score, once she marked off for spelling and accents, not to mention having misheard a completely wrong word (and she was insistent on grading us, even though it was a non-credit adult course). Only much later, when my own kid was in school in France, did I learn that this was a regular thing in French education: la dictée.IMG_1890She also tried mightily to improve our pronunciation. We used a book, Exercises in French Phonics, but I was still so focused on the difficult vowel combinations (euil!!! that one took forever to learn) and when final consonants or entire endings were silent (-ent on the end of third-person plural verbs in present tense: how do you not say THREE LETTERS???) and the whole nasal vowel thing that I didn’t pay much attention to the sounds I didn’t even register as different.IMG_1907Oliver Gee at the Earful Tower had a great podcast about fear of speaking French, and he confesses that he had only recently realized that tu and vous didn’t rhyme (tu is the singular form of you while vous is the plural form as well as the singular in formal situations). That was certainly my case back then. I went on a hiking trip in Morocco with Nouvelles Frontières, in which I was the only non-French person. One of the other hikers said, “so for you it’s an adventure trip AND a language course.” In the evenings, we would play games, often cards. One day I suggested charades. They had no idea about charades, which surprised me, because I thought it was a French word. Anyway, I taught them how to play. When I did “sounds like,” they failed again and again to get my clue. Finally I explained the clue, and they hooted with laughter because it was that u/ou mistake–to them the clue didn’t sound like the desired word at all–the equivalent of thinking pool and pole sound alike. I could not get my mouth to produce u like the French, and I did not hear the difference.IMG_1896 2But that was the least of my humiliations. There was the time when I told a taxi driver to take me to the North Station for the train. His head whipped around so fast it was like in cartoons. And then I realized I had pronounced it guerre du Nord instead of Gare du Nord–I had asked to be taken to the Northern War. The driver very kindly didn’t rub my nose in the mistake.IMG_1893In fact, the French have a very charming way of correcting your mistakes. They won’t outright correct you–instead they will say what you should have said. If I stupidly say I want un livre de cerises–to ask for a pound of cherries (and people do say livre/pound for 500 grams), the vendor will sweetly say, “D’accord! Une livre de cerises.” Un livre–masculine–is a book. Une livre–feminine–is a pound. Or at the bakery, a request for a pain au chocolat will be met with “voilà, une chocolatine,” the name chocolate-filled croissants are called in the southern half of France.IMG_1886My other New School teachers were Americans and much more pragmatic. One gave us lists of phrases to memorize. When one of the students moans, she barked, “Only when these phrases roll off your tongue naturally can you even start to advance to conversations. I will not have dilletantes in my class!” (This was said to a class of mostly retirees who just wanted to brush up their French before going on vacation.)IMG_1880The other teacher offered hacks. The most common verb infinitive ends with -er; when speaking to an individual formally or to a group you use vous, and the conjugation of -er verbs with vous ends with -ez, which sounds just like -er: both sound like A. She encouraged us to be formal and address everybody as vous, and we wouldn’t have to sweat the verb conjugation. It was a good hack until I made friends and had to learn the conjugations with tu.IMG_1850My French is much, much better these days, although I still make mistakes, especially with the gender of nouns. And I cannot get rid of my accent. I think of my grandmother, who left Europe to move to the U.S. when she was about seven and whose accent was still perceptible nine decades years later. And then there are people like Jodie Foster–when watching one of her movies on TV I was struck that her dubbed voice sounded uncannily like her real voice–rare with dubbing. So I sat through the credits and saw that, yes, she dubbed herself. With a perfect accent.IMG_1860People judge when you have an accent. Some people think it’s amazing that you speak another language, and you get credit for being smart, often more credit than you deserve. An accent can sound exotic or seductive.IMG_1835Other people think you must be stupid. I got that, too. It’s one thing to communicate basic facts; it’s a long slog before you are able to crack a joke or express nuance in another language. I remember being at a meeting of the parent-teacher association and one of the other parents making a derisive remark about me as if I wouldn’t understand what he had said. It made me think of other people who are émigrés/immigrants, trying to fit into their new lives, being judged on criterion that don’t accurately measure who they are.  I have the benefit of looking like any other French woman walking down the street; it’s only when I open my mouth that people know I’m not from here. For others, that judgment happens before any interaction even begins, because their skin color or their dress sets them out as different. It must be exhausting. Living abroad gives me more compassion to those who are strangers in a strange land, just trying to live their lives. IMG_1863I think the negative reactions come from a fear of the unknown, of being left out. I always spoke to my kid in English, and my husband always spoke in French, with the result that our kid is bilingual without trying. My husband told me I should speak only in French to our kid in public places, but I thought it was silly to switch languages just so other people would be able to eavesdrop more easily, and to hear what? “Put on your coat”/”Quit dawdling”/”What’s for dinner?” Nobody should be deprived of such scintillating stuff. At the same time, other parents would ask me to teach their kids English; I doubt many Arabic-speaking parents were solicited for language lessons.IMG_1872I learn new things in French every day. It’s a great adventure. Each discovery is a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that fits with other pieces, sometimes in surprising ways, and gives me a better picture of the people, the culture, the history. There is no shame in mistakes; the only people who don’t make mistakes are those who never try anything.

45 thoughts on “Adventures in French

  1. I would certainly never have dared to utter a word in French if I hadn’t been in a ‘sink or swim’ situation. I think being forced to communicate is the only way to learn a language, at least for me. BTW, I named my daughter after the Ludwig Bemelmens books — and also because ‘Madeline’ works equally well in both French and English.

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  2. Excellent and insightful post! I too was in love with France before I ever set foot there and took my first French courses in college. Then over the next almost 40 years, I would try to brush up when I was heading out to travel there. I’ve just retired from the corporate job and plan to spend time every day working on my French, finally the time for my goal towards fluency! Although each time I land back in France my brain wants to freeze when someone speaks rapidly to me, I’m also happy when the immersion clicks and words and speaking start to happen naturally. Lesson learned? Spend more time in France! And don’t worry about mistakes, some of my most fun times have been interacting with the lovely people who try to help me. Merci!

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  3. I made the un livre et une livre mistake recently with my husband as I still use the imperial system when it comes to weight.

    As he has now lived in Canada longer than he lived in France when he goes home for a visit people think he is American. LOL. Drives him nuts.

    When I lived in France I was often discriminated against because of my accent. It’s not fun. You are right that it must be so difficult for others to be accepted when they are visible minorities. I know that is how my husband felt when living in Hong Kong for two years. They discriminated against the Gweilo (white man, white ghost) openly. Racism isn’t frowned upon there rather it is openly accepted and practised.

    My roommate in France was always scared to make mistakes when she spoke. You don’t learn as quickly if you are scared to make mistakes. I didn’t care how many mistakes I made and I picked up verbal French much faster that her, despite never having studied French.

    Suzanne
    http://www.suzannecarillo.com

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  4. I loved this piece. I have lived here in France for a long time, and have achieved the ability to assert myself, even with service providers. Despite the fact that I make mistakes I am willing to barge ahead. And I particularly appreciated your view of this as an adventure. My French friends tell me if I am making glaring errors, but are generous and say my French is “charming”.

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    1. The achievements come bit by bit, don’t they? I also can deal with service providers on the phone, though it’s easier in person. And finally I feel able to do it online, too. The absence of human interaction makes it scarier.

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  5. For starters I think it’s brave to live in another country and master their language and customs. I can see how it could be a life-long endeavor. Loved the Jodie Foster tidbit, but then we shouldn’t be surprised. She’s brilliant. I’m curious… Did the other parents ever realize you understood what they said about you? xoxox, B

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  6. I was in French immersion through a good part of school. Of course that’s Canadian French, which evolved somewhat differently from that on the continent.

    And I’ve let that fluency become quite rough due to lack of use.

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    1. Language is definitely use it or lose it…at least until you try to speak it again–I think you’d be surprised at how fast it comes back, especially since you learned when you were young.

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  7. Nice article! Learning a language is like getting a key to a whole new world! It’s quite an accomplishment. I’m thrilled when I can decipher French being an English only speaker. So I read the backs of packages or laundering instructions for little tidbits just for fun. Duolingo is great for vocabulary but not for spoken skills. It’s probably where I’ll remain as their learning levels are vast and I don’t see myself in an immersion situation via travel.

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    1. I do that with other languages. I regret not having learned Spanish. Even a bit of vocabulary is good. When I was with my extended family in Italy, I was driving and asked the passengers what street we were on. My SIL looked out the window and said, “We’re on…V…I…A…Via! We’re on Via!” Which is Italian for street. And a word she now knows.

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  8. What a great post. I mangle French, but I do try. It usually works. If they switch to English, I ask if they would speak French, but more slowly. Yes, there are some strange conversations, but quite a bit of laughter. I’m not concerned with seeming like a precocious five year old. After all these years my French should be a lot better….just lazy…
    Ali

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  9. This is a topic too familiar to me, as I emigrated to US from Romania almost two decades ago. And although I thought I had English solidly tucked under my belt after 6 years of studying it in school, boy did I go into a shock when I had to speak it all the time and get a job outside of the home?! Language acquisition is a complex process that starts in the brain but also involves retraining your facial muscles and tongue muscles so that it hits different spots inside your mouth to produce new sounds that are different than your native language. There are speech therapists who can help one to reduce their accent and probably Jodie Foster used that therapy. For me it was a $7500 affair and I chose to keep my accent and the money. But yes, I have been called stupid and ridiculed a lot. It was hurtful at the beginning but now I feel sorry for people who are judging me but are incapable of saying a simple Good Day in a different language. It’s like in that old fable when the fox cannot reach the grapes up on the vine and declares that there are too sour for her. Keep speaking and mimic the natives and although you may not ever lose your accent, you’ll become increasingly proficient and fluent. Bon courage!

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    1. Jodie Foster learned French when she was young–that helps a lot! I think you are exactly right that the people who are unkind are the ones who can’t speak another language themselves–that was the case with the mean dad at the parent-teacher meeting. Have you heard of open mindset and closed mindset? People with an open mindset are curious about new things, want to learn, aren’t threatened by change. People with a closed mindset are exactly the opposite.

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      1. It’s true, age is an important factor.My son who was 15 at the time has no perceptible accent. I was 41 and was told by specialists that it will take me just about 8 years to transition to actually thinking and expressing myself in English ( you know of course that at the beginning, everyone thinks in the native and then translates in the acquiring language). It took me just about over 7 years and one knows when she made the transition: when she starts dreaming in the new language.
        As for the mind set, I know I can’t change anyone else’s, so I accept it as a fact of life.There is room under the sun for everyone😀
        This is a quite a fascinating topic that has to do with brain plasticity, the mechanics of speech and cultural implications. I think the bilingual( or multilingual ) people are trailblazers and probably in a not too distant future, many people will become multilingual because these days, one can move easily from one part of the globe to another, like the digital nomads and even retirees. And of course the tribalism is going to encroach certain individuals no matter what.

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  10. I studied French at school in Western Canada where none of our teachers were francophone. The auditory discrimination between those words “gare” and “guerre” or “tout”
    and “tu” did not exist. It took me a lot of years and a course called “Corrective Phonetics for Anglophone Teachers of French” to develop my ear. I taught English to immigrants for years and I encouraged them to speak English as much as possible but I understand that shop clerks and waiters are sometimes impatient. As for me, if I am in France by myself, I don’t speak English so I think and do self-talk in French. Communication and patience are so important to language learners.

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  11. I always try to learn basic phrases in whatever country I visit because I believe it shows a basic courtesy to those with whom I am trying to communicate. I also try to learn basic customs, as well, such as in France, saying Bonjour/Au Revoir Monsieur/Madam to shop assistants/owners when entering or departing their premises. Always using please, thank you, and/or pardon me in the appropriate language, as necessary. Do I make mistakes? Absolutely, but maybe I have been fortunate in that I have found most people, including waiters, I have encountered, have been patient and pleasant at my communication attempts in their language. Right now I am brushing up on my French and German for an upcoming trip this fall. The kicker is that I keep ‘cross-pollinating’ the verbs and pronouns in the two languages (i.e. es vs. ist, tu vs. du, etc.). Hard to keep switching between the various languages with my ‘old synapses’. Nevertheless, I persevere. Thirty years of working with refugees taught me a great deal about struggling with a new language and a new life. I am beyond fortunate that my efforts at learning a language are for pleasure and not a matter of sheer survival.

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  12. Well, I think you know how I feel about learning and speaking other languages… And personally, I am a big fan of the sink or swim approach. But I do realize it isn’t for everyone. It served me well in some of my travels in younger years, not too badly when I had to manage Flemish (though switching to French was too easy an out), and I think it still would be my preferred method with some study before (basics at least).

    In fact, never having been to Italy, and having taught myself a smattering of Italian, I would love love love to be able to be placed in an Italian family for a month, and dropped into their household for a swing Sink-or-swim good time!

    I had to laugh at various parts of this post. I do recall the terror of that was la dictée — and more so taking oral exams in France — and there’s nothing like a little bit (a huge amount?) of fear to make you study and practice extended hours.

    About the formality – Having learned my French from French people (not America, Canadian, Belgian or other), and in France, and then having worked with French divisions of companies for years, I always start out with “vous” rather than “tu” and struggled with making the switch when I married into a Belgian family. Even now, my instinct is always to go with the formal unless dealing with kids.

    By the way, is there writing on the blog about your time in China?

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  13. Such a great entry! Count me among the throngs who have wrestled with French throughout their adult lives. I too had the obligatory 4 high school years, but I continued to take all manner of French classes whenever I had elective options as an undergrad. I ranged from intensive grammar to French for reading knowledge, to conversation skills.

    Living in France in bursts over the past 20 years, I studied for a time at the Alliance Française in Paris on Boulevard Raspail, but mostly I test myself with French friends, my grandkids, at the market, and at mass. I find dinner parties the most difficult because there the conversation is so rapid and idiomatic!

    Happily, our in-town U.S. state university offers courses for free for townspeople d’un certain âge. Again, I’ve taken courses in conversation, grammar review, and La Société Française: 1800-present. Those are great because I find my French fares well with current undergrads who have less real experience using the language. And the profs challenge me.

    Bottom line: every time I return to France, I think my French is a little more secure. It’s as if I’ve had time for my brain to digest it more deeply. A tip that works for me is to speak slowly and precisely rather than succumbing to the urge to speak fast. The French appreciate precise articulation, and luckily one of the courses I’ve picked up along the way is French phonetics!

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  14. Most interesting. My sister-in-law is married to a Frenchman and has lived in France since the mid-80’s, bringing up three children as bi-lingual. The eldest speaks the clearest English and though the others are just as fluent, they do not sound the same – because, of course, amongst themselves they always spoke French. And now they are all adults, the whole family speaks French. My daughter did French at university and lived in Nantes for a year – she speaks excellent French, which stood her in good stead when she went to work for the EU Commission, although English was the common language. My own French isn’t bad though I need a bit of practise with conversation. I did an A level in my 20’s at evening class and the French teacher was charming but ruthless – we had to do a two year course in one – including dictation. I was used to this because it was a part of the English school curriculum when I was a child, though it must have been terrible if you were dyslexic, real torture. I am all in favour of people learning to speak other languages but in the UK this is going into reverse, according to latest stats. No good will come of this.

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    1. I am happy to say that the French have doubled down on languages. For a few years now, English is required starting in middle school (around age 12–the sweet spot for learning). And students have to take a second foreign language, usually Spanish or German, though here Occitan is also offered. In high school they can even take a third. I think it’s great.

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  15. I was lucky enough to have a French woman, as my teacher, when I was at secondary (high) school. I don’t think I appreciated her enough, at the time. She would probably be turning in her grave if she knew I studied French at uni and went on to being a teacher of French, myself. It’s so true, as another commenter said, that if you don’t use it, you lose it. I think it’s mostly about communication and confidence. If you some mistakes, so be it, as long as you can get across what you are trying to say. The hardest part, for me, is the accent. How I would like to completely loose my English accent! My French friends think it’s charming. I’m not convinced… Great post.

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  16. As an English person who has a “residence secondaire” in the Cantal department, I am thankful that I did A level French at grammar school, albeit in the 1960’s. It has been extremely useful over the years, on holidays in France when we had young children, and now it makes life much easier here when we visit. I’m not fluent, but can manage to make myself understood and to understand in most situations, even if I don’t get every word. I did spend about 3 weeks during my A level course on exchange with a French family, in which neither parent spoke any English, so I had to communicate in French. It certainly helped my French conversation. I cannot understand people who buy a house in a foreign country and don’t learn to speak any of the local language – I think its only polite to make some effort.

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    1. I agree absolutely. Buying a house is a much bigger commitment than just going on vacation, and there should be an effort to learn the language, even if it isn’t perfect.

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  17. I am not sure how I missed this post. I have studied French since I was 15, I have spent many, many summers in France and have visited at least once a year for many, many years. I even had a French boyfriend and I am horrible at speaking French! Once of my best friends in the world is French and I stayed summers with her parents in Paris, St.Jean de luz and St. Lis and let me repeat I am terrible. I can understand most times what people are saying to me but I get so frustrated that I cannot answer back in French. I have given up.

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    1. I bet you speak better than you think. It is frustrating for the longest time, not being as erudite or articulate as in one’s mother tongue but that eventually gets better. Listen to the podcast I linked to. They talk about not being able to make jokes and lacking nuance.

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  18. I had many years of French in school, and then went to some courses, but I never became very good at it. I can follow a conversation and order food in a restaurant and that’s about it. I can’t complain though, I speak three languages fluently (English, German, Dutch, all business level) and with those three as a basis and a very friendly smile, I have some very fruitful interactions with local people across the globe. My motto: It is not so much about being able to understand one another, as being willing to understand one another!

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  19. I’m currently travelling with three French girls and each day they teach me a new phrase. The only way I can perfect the pronunciation is by faking a French accent. I thought I was taking the mic, but they said the pronunciation was perfect!
    Good post, enjoyed reading!

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