17 November 2010

Finding my way - linguistically - in France

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Erin picked my mum and me up from our Paris hotel to spend the day with her in Versailles. It was a splendid coincidence that we were talking about how to make ourselves understood by native french speakers, when we were stopped by a minor traffic accident in front of us.

After some thought and with horns blaring behind us, the drivers immediately in front of us carefully edged their way onto the footpath, behind a removal van and back onto the road ahead of the accident. At about this time, Erin was telling us a story about how she needed to make herself understood - so that she could work out whether to move her car out of the way of another vehicle. After several attempts to say "is my car in the way?" in French, she sidetracked and said instead "would you like me to move my car?"

The symbolism of this story combined with our manouevres to get round the traffic accident has stayed with me these last couple of weeks as I try to come to grips with speaking French for most of the day. I start out to ask for something, or tell a story as I would in English. And then I have to stop - and find my way around the "traffic accident" that is about to occur with my current skill level!

So lesson 1 in learning French: if you have some vocabulary and some grammar, just keep working with what you've got and find a way to express yourself. Don't be afraid to have a go.  This works really well in Montpellier, where the locals are very patient with students such as myself. They don't rush you (as the Parisians do) and they don't try and second guess you (as the Parisians are also wont to do!)

I'm in a different class this week - there are students from England, Spain, Italy and Switzerland (Suisse-Allemande), whereas last week, most of the students in my class were English-speaking. The teachers here like having a mixed class, because it promotes the use of French between students during breaks and socially. Mondays are tough - especially if you've spent the weekend with English-speaking companions - it takes an hour or so for the brain to reset into "I'm speaking french" mode again.

Another thing that occurs to me as I eavesdrop conversations on the tram or train these days (and yes I'm getting better at it!) - is that it doesn't really matter if I know the words or sentence construction or not, if I'm missing the context, the history or the culture, then I'm really not going to be able to understand what is said.

Alors - lesson number 2: don't just learn the language, get out and about and try and work out what makes people tick in the particular city or region. For example, on a tram yesterday, I sat opposite a man wearing a baseball cap with the words "Diable Rouges" on it. That would have meant nothing to me a couple of weeks ago, but yesterday, I was able to place this man as a rugby (league) fan. Diable Rouges is the name of Montpellier's league team!! Of course, you can read Wikipedia or a travel guide, but the most useful things are to read the local papers, watch local TV, or just talk to the locals (as best one can).

And for today's post, the final tip is to stop people trying to practise their English with you!! As Erin said - and I paraphrase - "For goodness sake, we're in France, we're supposed to practise our French, not their English!" So even if people try to help me out, I generally respond "J'essaie en francais, ca va?"

Oh - and if you want to learn to speak french in France - the school I'm at (Institute Linguistique Adenet) is good - and there are options in many other cities as well.  Check out the website of the International Association of Language Schools and search for courses by the language and country of interest.


  1. Bella - love it, I am the same in Italian - I 'think' in English and have to work it out but when I am in Italy I "think" Italian after awhile.. love you and keep the posts coming - I love reading them.. Jack is tracking you on our world map at home

  2. I have a similar policy in China. If my partner speaks Mandarin, then the only way they can get me to speak in English to them is by paying me. Doesn't matter what language they talk to me in, the most "English" they'll get in reply is "Ok" or "Good luck".

    Naturally, I make exceptions for people who don't speak Chinese, but then again, I rarely associate with Westerners these days.