I’m in my mid-forties ahem OK, you got me, late-40s. Almost two years ago we moved to France with the husband and kids. A new life, in a new city, in a new country, with a new culture and new language. This meant I had to get my head round French. Fast. But it’s been a struggle. An uphill struggle to get my grey matter fired up and attempt to speak something else other than English. But why? Am I just rubbish at languages? Probably. Is it because I didn’t listen to my French teacher at school? Yup. Or is it just the fact that I am too old to learn French?
The last time I learnt French was back in school. in the 80s. I used to sit at the back of Miss C’s class attempting, not very enthusiastically, to conjugate verbs, learn vocabulary, and fail my dictation spectacularly. I was more interested in flicking through Just 17 (remember that?) and learning the lyrics to Wham and Duran Duran songs in my Smash Hits magazine. Because I really hated French. And French was, quite frankly, boring and pointless.
We never visited France when I was a kid
When I was young we never travelled to France. Hang on a minute, yes I did, a day trip with the Brownies to Calais. I came home with a plastic Eiffel Tower.
Then we started to visit Paris
But I really didn’t need much French for a city break. Restaurant French was fine to get by. And of course, I know to ask for a glass of red wine and for my steak to be cooked rare.
Then we moved to Paris. And yes this meant I had to learn French
Just after we arrived in Paris I enrolled into Alliance Francaise a big, international language school, with sites across the world; an endless programme of classes and lots of foreign students wandering the corridors looking cool.
The classes were fine, my French improved (slightly). I passed my A1 exam. But I could not string a sentence together. After that, my level did not progress. I plateaued stuck at slightly better restaurant French and moving into getting by in the supermarket French.
I changed school, joining WICE, an American organisation that runs French classes. Having fluked the assessment, and landed Level 2B – intermediate.
My first class was the subjunctive.
Subjunctive – what’s that? I don’t remember learning about the subjunctive in English, let alone in French.
In that first class, I wanted to curl up in a corner and cry and die.
But I am living in France I need to learn to speak French.
But do I really need to learn French?
- There are Facebook groups to meet other English speaking mums. Brilliant.
- Meet Up is brilliant for finding English speaking activities. Yes! Just what I need.
- Google Translate is a life saver. It really is!
Surely I can get by without learning to speak French….. er no.
No. I really, really had to learn French
Because there were situations where I really had to know my French.
You know, like, speak French. Because I was the one dealing with the household stuff, and that was all in French.
- Like the time I had to get a plumber to unblock the drain on our balcony
- When I posted our rent cheque without a stamp. I had to make sure the letting agency received the cheque
- I had to tackle French bureaucracy and enroll the kids into the French summer playscheme
- And when there was a leak in the flat and I had to speak to our neighbours who don’t speak English
There’s no getting away from it, I had to learn French.
But why am I struggling to learn French? Is it because I am too old to learn French?
Ok, age does come into it. Trying to learn a new language in your mid to late forties isn’t easy. But…
1. It’s all about the grammar baby
When I think back to my school days, we weren’t taught English grammar very well. Not the way I need to know French grammar.
In French I must know all my tenses: present, passe compose, imperfect, future, future proche, conditional, subjunctive.
I need to know my pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, the subject, direct object, indirect object and it goes on, and on and on.
Oh, and of course the masculine, feminine, singular and plurals.
I need to know how to structure a sentence in French and how all the words work together.
This is something I just take for granted in English.
2. Rules, rule, and more rules
The French language loves its rules and there are so many so many. Thanks to the Academie Francaise for conserving the purity of the French language, lumbering me with linguistic regulation and grammatical conventions I must obey.
3. Then the exception to all those rules
Once I learned the rule, I suddenly find out there’s a whole bunch of exceptions.
Seriously why? I thought you were preserving the purity of French language.
4. Got to get the accent right
This is the killer. This is where I stumble. Because if I cannot get the accent right I am simply not understood.
This is how it goes:
I plan what I needed to say, first in English, then in French.
I conjugate my verb, match my je, tu, il/elle/on, nous, vous, ils, elles, with the right ending. Get my subject, match it with my adjective, get my adverb, sort out my pronouns and my prepositions.
I attempt to utter my sentence.
Deep breath. I speak.
Then, it’s ‘Non’, blank stare.
They can’t understand me. I am crushed.
How have I been learning to speak French?
- I bit the bullet and booked private 1:1 classes. My French teacher is fabulous but tough. I have homework and she’s knocking my French accent into shape
- I’m watching TV in French – the best films are seriously bad action films
- Switching on French subtitles when I binge on Netflix
- I am only listening to French radio – I’m getting into my French Europop
Slowly I am getting better. I can just about hold a short conversation in French. And I have even been complimented on my French.
And, who knows by the time I go back to the UK, my French might just about be passable.
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