Posted in Life in Paris Mid-life Mama

Forty plus. Am I I too old to learn French?

Forty plus. Am I I too old to learn French? Posted on June 12, 201744 Comments

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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44 thoughts on “Forty plus. Am I I too old to learn French?

  1. I can speak french because I studied it at University and lived there for a year but I would NOT want to be learning it now! We have a property in France and my husband can’t speak french at all so really struggles but he just relies on me, which is a pain! This is a great post and 1:1 is definitely the way forward 🙂

    1. I used to rely on my husband when we visited Paris, and then we moved here and I was left dealing with the French bureaucracy. I had to learn French, to cut through the red tape, deal with schools, the kids homework and to make friends!

  2. I got on reasonably well with German and I’m going to start teaching it to the kids but French, no! I was dreadful. You are totally right though, it is so important to learn languages when you live abroad so good luck!! #KCACOLS

    1. It’s been an uphill struggle for me to get French into my brain. I am glad I have persevered, it’s not an easy language to learn. My husband preferred learning German, the rules were straightforward, and you pronounce every letter in a word. I envy my kids now, they are pretty much fluent!

  3. Oh well done for persevering! I’m sure it’s down to an age thing (And I can say that as I’m similar age to you!). Babies can learn languages fluently, so I think it’s harder as we get older, we are too set in our ways! Reading this totally takes me back to my French classes – tenses and feminine and masculine etc. Oh and of course reading Just 17 and listening to Wham! and Duran Duran! I hope you keep it up, you’re giving us all inspiration that we can learn something as we get older!
    Thanks for linking up with #KCACOLS, hope to see you again next time. x
    Cheryl @ Tea or Wine recently posted…Interview With My Mum The AuthorMy Profile

    1. Ahhhh thank you! It’s been hard but worth the perseverance.If anything it has given my brain a workout! Mental gymnastics!

  4. I have always wanted to learn French but you have just made me realise how hard it is! I’m sure being in France and picking up other peoples conversations will be really helpful to you, hope it gets easier 🙂 #KCACOLS

    1. It’s been an uphill battle with the language but I am finally getting there. And eavesdropping does help!

  5. This is such a good post. I think it’s really admirable to be making such an effort to learn the language despite how hard it is (and it does sound really hard!) I fancy learning something new but I’m not sure what, my brain definitely needs a run out. Thank you for sharing with #fortheloveofBLOG
    Daydreams of a mum recently posted…Out of my hands My Profile

    1. Language learning is great mental gymnastics – it will give your brain the equivalent of a body pump class. Give it a go!

  6. You’re never too old to learn something new!
    I would say getting the private tutor was a good move. Forget the classroom rote learning method. Hands on is always best for languages and what you’re doing with the French movies, subtitles etc is the perfect way to learn. You don’t need perfect written grammar, you need conversational language and the best way to get that is by having/hearing conversations
    Thanks for linking up to #BloggerClubUK 🙂
    Random Musings recently posted…The Million Dollar Blog: Book ReviewMy Profile

    1. The private tutor was the best move. I’ve learnt so much from her. She’s really helping me with my spoken French. I’m glad I don’t really need written French, the grammar would kill me. It’s bad enough trying to cope with the kids’ homework!

  7. No you are not!!!! Never! And you write so many fab posts about French places and other stuff!!!! Not being fluent doesn’t matter as long as you make the effort! And there is nothing cuter than an accent

    1. Aww! Thank you Frenchie Mummy, I do hope to continue with the French when I get back to the UK. And the accent is getting better slowly!

  8. Well done you! sounds like your trying really hard. Learning a language is really hard, I personally think my brain just doesn’t work well with learning another language, whereas my hubby always picks it up easily!

    1. Thank you! And well done on your GCSE! I tell you I do struggle to go out and speak. And phone conversations, I hide under the duvet!

    1. Thanks so much lovely. It is so hard to learn a language when you are older. It feels like my brain as solidified around English. Just have to keep bashing in the French!

  9. Good for you for working on it! My husband lived in France as a teen and is fairly fluent, and so I’ve always wanted to learn too…but it’s so daunting. I think you hit the nail on the head with point #1 – I know at school I struggled with French for many reasons but the grammar was a biggie as I didn’t even understand it in English! I wish you all the best with it.
    Sadie recently posted…i formula feed…so what?My Profile

    1. I tell you getting my head around French grammar was so hard. Just wish we had covered grammar in English, it’d make language learning a lot easier for sure.

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