Parlez-vous anglais?

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!

Champagne and macarons
Une flute de champagne et un macaron pistache avec ma classe

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.

Keep your hope
Stencil art by the Seine
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3 thoughts on “Parlez-vous anglais?

  1. Hi Sheila, great post! It’s pretty encouraging :) I have also finally started formally learning French at Alliance Francaise here a month ago. The classes are from 9am-3pm on both Saturdays and Sundays. Our teacher is from a small city in west France and we all love her. Funnily enough that our experience is similar in some ways – I had the entry test and somehow managed to skip the “absolute beginner” level, and in our first class we had to introduce ourselves in French. I was surprised that most of my classmates have been studying formally for at least 3 months (one of them has even done a year of French study), It was pretty hard for me at the beginning because the classes are conducted fully in French…plus I found myself really slow with pronunciations as I didn’t learn “phonetique” properly. Now that 5 weeks have passed, I seem to be cruising along. The classes are very helpful as we mainly focus on survival French; I guess it’d be a good chance to test how I go this Sep-Oct when I will physically be in Paris. It’s a pity you’ll be gone by then:( Tu me manques beaucoup! we really need to think of a way to catch up! xx

    1. You’re such a good language learner and I’m sure you’ll get to use the language when you’re in Paris. Really interesting to hear about your experiences in Beijing ’cause I’m going to continue with French studies back home; not sure who I will learn with. Not sure when we’ll see each other next :-(

  2. Oui… et espagnol!

    No surprises that your post also struck a chord with me as I too have started proper French classes at Alliance Française which is more or less down the road from me.

    Contrary to the other posters, I’ve never indulged in the French language before, although it has always intrigued me. I missed out being exposed to French in high school due to shear bad luck with the rosters and got stuck learning adhoc Greek instead!

    Also, I seem to be bucking the trend by saying I’m finding it fairly tough going. Maybe it all boils down to expectations. Having Spanish in the bag and being no stranger to Italian, I thought that surely completing the trifecta couldn’t be all that hard? Well, I quickly learnt that French is more English than Spanish or Italian as far as phonetics go. The French seem to throw in letters here and there; as my French teacher Florent likes to say, because we’re French and we can! Just because you can say it doesn’t mean you can write it and just because you can read it doesn’t mean you can speak it! That said, the other languages are very good at providing hooks on which to hang memory triggers for certain words so that I’m not learning from scratch, so not all is lost! :-)

    Its just ‘beginners’ and its only 2 hours a week but every Wednesday evening I feel like I’ve been hit by a Japanese bullet train! The pace is unrelenting and now that we’re half way through the class has also become “French only”! I guess it provides a great opportunity to practice “je ne comprends pas” and “parlez lentement s’il vous plait”.

    As you said Sheila, its a challenge that is enjoyable! I’ve got a long way to go, but I’ve commenced the journey!

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