On Learning French

Here was the fantasy:  I’d come to France, spend several months here speaking to people all day long in their native language, and greatly improve my French.   In a university with some 25,000 students there would be no shortage of people to talk to and I’d be nearly fluent by the time I left here.  That was the idea, anyway. Here is the reality:  The exact number of French students I have met in France – and I’m just going to round it up to the next highest number here – is ZERO.  As in 0.  As in not one single solitary French student have I met in France.  (I do know one French student but I met him in the U.S.) All my classmates are Erasmus students.  I’ve made friends with a number of them, but none of them are French.  Almost without exception, the Erasmus students speak fluent English while their level of French is about like mine.  So how do you think we communicate?  In English mostly.   We sometimes try speaking French among ourselves but there is quite a wide variety of accents and a range of skill levels so I wouldn’t say that does a lot for helping me to improve.  (For example, as I was writing this a Polish classmate emailed me, in English, to ask me what we did in our French Language class today.)

I do speak French when I’m out in public but the results are sometimes less than I hope for.  For example:  I was in a store looking for a sleeping bag so I asked a salesman for help, “Excusez-moi, monsieur, pourriez-vous m’aider?  Je cherche un sac de couchage.”

His reply:  “Oh, you are speaking English!  Can we speak English together?”

Okay, well I know my French isn’t that great, but clearly I was NOT speaking English.

Like most Americans, I adore hearing English spoken with a strong French accent.  My professor, who never speaks a word of English, randomly said in class one day, “Beeg bruzzer ees watching”  – (“Big Brother is watching”) – and I, as the only native English speaker in the class,  burst out laughing because it was so unexpected.  I was like,  “Dites-le encore une fois!”  I loved it. (Too bad the French don’t seem to feel the same way about our accents and our mistakes, that’s all I’m saying…)

The one thing that has improved is my listening comprehension.  Even if I can’t talk and have conversations, I can listen.  I’ve listened to lectures in class and sermons in church and even announcements in train stations and I understand nearly all of it.   Occasionally I can even understand some of what people are saying out in the streets in random snatches of conversation that I overhear. When I do speak, it is usually involving some kind of transaction like buying train tickets.  I’m pretty good at stuff like “je voudrais un billet simple pour Paris, s’il vous plaît” but that is just standard tourist phrase book French.  I understand what they are saying when they ask me if I want a return ticket, or if I have a discount card, or which train I want.  I can answer “oui“,  “non” or “celui qui part à 8h00“.   But I don’t have prolonged conversations in which I can really practice talking as much as I’d like. I suppose if more French is in my head, the experience hasn’t been wasted but that still leaves me with a passive skill level that exceeds my speaking ability.  I had hoped to change that while I was here, but with only one more month to go, I’m not too sure that is going to happen. ONLY ONE MORE MONTH!!!

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