On my first day of French class I had to swallow my fear right from the very start. Dozens of us were gathered that first morning and we went around introducing ourselves. “Je m’appelle…”, “Je viens…”, “Je suis…”: what our names were, where we came from or what our nationality was. After everyone had finished, the school director singled out the beginners. That’s what I put on my application form but when she got to me that morning I said, “erm…I think I’m a ‘false beginner’?”
I knew a bit of French, a year in high school when I was 12-13 and informal and occasional self-study since then (including almost a month of travel in France in 2005), and I didn’t want to sit through the basics again. And besides, one of the girls had said “Je suis New York” (literally: “I am New York”) and it was clear that I wasn’t quite at the same level as her. “Okay, you can take the test as well”, she said to me. I felt panic rise within me.
A third of us went off to another room and the test was even more terrifying than I expected: it involved being paired up with another member of the class and asking them a series of questions before introducing them to the class…in French. I was paired up with a Georgian woman living in Switzerland whose French was clearly superior to most of the people in the room. But she was really encouraging and reassured me that I’d be fine. And somehow…I was. When it was my turn I explained who she was, where she lived, how many languages she spoke, what she did on the weekend in Paris. I muddled my way through and afterwards I was placed in the “elementaire” level, the one above absolute beginners. Needless to say, I felt pretty proud of myself. It wasn’t a huge achievement, but it was something.
By the end of my two weeks of classes, I saw huge improvements in my French, particularly my ability to speak and my grasp of grammar. The first day, my brain was spinning from sitting through a class conducted entirely in French…but after a day or two it felt natural to have 3-4 hours of French every morning. It got to the point where, any time someone spoke in English in the class, as we invariably would, the sound of English was jarring. It didn’t help that most of my classmates were either Australians or Kiwis. (By the way, it’s strange how many Australians there seem to be in Paris at the moment, is it always this way?)
We had a lot of fun conversations facilitated by our great teacher, Celine, who was a lively thirtysomething year old whose comprehension of our bad French was superb. She also finished up on Friday too, because she was taking three weeks leave. I know that my classmates were sorry to lose her. On mine and Celine’s last day (Friday), we had macarons from Laudurée – the original and best purveyors of macarons in France – with champagne. Santé!
Learning French in-country had once been a back-up plan of mine after a relationship break-up and I figured that if I stayed single long enough to plan such an adventure then I’d do it. Well, I didn’t stay single and given that I’m in a happy relationship, it’s even more of a joy that I could still go ahead with my plan anyway. Those two weeks of French classes everyday was so much fun, and I feel incredibly lucky to have had the privilege. You know, it’s not even that I think French is a beautiful language, which seems to be the main motivation for a lot of people, but somehow I just really enjoy learning something that seems to stick so easily in my brain while being challenging at the same time. Sad to say that as it is, my French right now is already far, far superior to my ability with Thai. I guess I just never felt a strong motivation to learn Thai and being there more than a year didn’t help. But learning Thai showed me what kind of language learner I was and that’s helped a lot with my second time learning a language formally.
Originally, I was going to do four weeks of French classes but it became apparent last month that it would be more sensible to just do classes for two weeks then spend some time travelling and forcing myself into speaking. Paris is a bit intimidating when it comes to speaking French because people are so impatient with you if you’re a tourist, but I’m hopeful that where I’m heading to today (Dijon) will be more conducive to speaking French. Maybe while I’m there, I won’t immediately ask people, “parlez-vous anglais?” and speak in English to keep things simple, because I’ll speaking French instead. It’ll take a while with the language but I’ll get there.