Learning another language when you’re at school is one thing, but trying to speak it over 30 years later when you’ve not uttered a word of French during that time, is a whole other ball game.
So why then did I move to France?
Well that’s a story in itself, and one I’ve told in my book ‘Life in Rural France’, coming out Easter 2023.
But what I can categorically tell you is it wasn’t because of my grasp of the French language. Far from it.
I mean yes, I took both French and German at school, and even got a ‘B’ in my ‘O Levels’ for both. But let’s be clear on this, high school French is nothing like actual French.
High School French is nothing like the French spoken in France
I remember a few key phrases from my French at school such as:
- La fenêtre est ouverte (the window is open)
- Je voudrais un oeuf (I would like an egg)
- La table est longue (the table is long)
All very important phrases when you’re trying to pass your aural French exam Not quite so helpful when you’re trying to get by at the supermarket, make an appointment at the doctor, or have a conversion about your taxes.
And never, ever, ever, start a sentence to a French person by telling them you’re English. Well not if you want them to actually answer you or help you.
This phrase might be tempting but it’s not a good idea….
“Je suis anglais. Mon français est un petit peu.”
Trust me on this one. I do get it, because I’ve done it myself. And in my head probably like yours, telling them I’m English, and I only have a small amount of French is the polite thing to do.
They take a massive offence to this, and in all honesty why shouldn’t they? I’m in their country after all, and not even attempting to ask my question in French, is quite frankly insulting them.
As my Mum always told me, when in Rome do as the Romans do.
Well that’s all very well in principle, but in practice it’s a whole lot harder.
Taking French lessons when living in France
Never one to be beaten easily I decided to try and rectify my lack of French by taking lessons.
And for me, lockdown was the perfect time to do this. I had no social life to speak of and no excuses like airport runs, book club, apéros or anything else.
The only thing on my list was work. So I thought learning French would not only be helpful and fun, but doable as well.
And it was, for about the first ten minutes.
Now don’t get me wrong, I was all in with the French lessons. I even dragged hubby in for good measure so we could both improve. But for me it still didn’t click.
For some reason, unknown even to myself, my whole accent completely changes when I speak French.
In what way? Well funny you should ask.
Having lived in Australia for over ten years I do have a slight Aussie twang. I’m also a born and bred Essex girl. However, my Mum sent me for elocution lessons when I was a child. She apparently didn’t want me to sound like from Sharon and Tracey from ‘Birds of a Feather’. The 80’s equivalent of ‘The Only Way is Essex.’
Looking back now this was just cruel. It really didn’t help me in my quest to be known as one of the popular kids at school. Add to that my knitted dresses and the fact I played violin, I was a walking advert for ‘nerd’.
Learning to speak 'Del Boy' French
Anyway, it’s safe to say my accent is a bit of a hybrid of posh Southerner and honorary Aussie. But what it absolutely isn’t, is cockney.
Why then do I sound like I come from Peckham in South East London when I try to speak French?
I’ll tell you why because as a child who grew up watching the hilarious comedy TV Show, ‘Only Fools and Horses’. The only voice I can hear when I try to speak French is Del Boy, the main character.
And for those of you who don’t know who he is or what that means, here’s a little of his greatest French hits. And if you do know exactly who he is you’ll love this little trip down memory lane.
Some of my particular Del Boy favourites were his pronunciation of ‘merci beaucoup’ and use of the phrase ‘mange tout, mange tout’.
I could list at least a dozen more but I think you get the point.
So back to my fateful French lessons.
Taking lessons versus conversational French
My poor French teacher Steph, who had the patience of a saint, spent the majority of each lesson correcting my pronunciation. Poor hubby didn’t really get a look in.
I felt like a lost cause but hubby was still managing to come on leaps and bounds. He got it and it just seemed to click for him.
He always did his homework on time and always got it all right. Not that I’m actually outing him as a swot, but if the shoe fits?
I on the other hand never got it right. I always left it till five minutes before the lesson was due to start before starting my homework. Hardly a dedicated student.
It was clear this wasn’t working for any of us involved. And I realised this method of learning just wasn’t the right one for me. And that was ok. I just had to find an alternative.
So what’s the answer to my learning French woes?
Well, as so many of my wonderful French friends have told me, the only way to really learn French, is to take start speaking it.
I’ve roped my French friend Anne into doing weekly conversational French with me. We’ll see if that helps. She’s a strict teacher and won’t let me get away with anything. She’s always pulling me up on pronunciation but it’s still more fun than the lessons.
I have to stop copping out and letting my French friends speak to me in English. I need to put myself out there and just give it a go. Embrace the language of the country I’ve adopted, and take time out of my work schedule to actually make it happen.
So I’m determined to learn French, no more excuses, and each month I want to hit a new milestone. I’m better with goals and deadlines so help me lay out a plan that isn’t so ambitious I can’t do it, but is ambitious enough to make me strive to achieve it.
Are you ready to help me?
One thing I have done to help my French is to join the local line dancing group. It’s working wonders for my French.
À bientôt et merci beaucoup!