You may think that going to the country where the language you’re learning is spoken is the ultimate solution. Well, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes things just don’t go like you expected. Ask Jimmy Monaghan, who is happy to share his thoughts with you. He’s going to talk about his experience of learning French in France.
Over to you Jimmy!
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French; that crazy, cool, moody language that you hear spoken by people wearing black clothes in movies and TV really just sounds like a baffling murmur of random oohhhs and uuuhhhs, doesn’t it? I had to learn the thing in school. My enthusiasm for the language at the time was a little lacklustre. ‘French? When am I ever going to need that?’ I would think. Of course I was an ignorant teenager at the time.
Fast forward seven years later and I end up getting a job in France, just my luck. The job was an eight month contract working with an English Language Theatre Company, so no French skills were required, thank God. I told myself I would learn the language anyway. Surely if I was living there it would be easy right? Wrong.
I did manage to learn un petit peu, but I became nowhere near as fluent as a once much more optimistic me had hoped. Why was that? Surely eight months is enough time pick up a language that constantly surrounds you. Am I just a little slow? Perhaps, but I thought it would be a good idea to list out some of the main reason why I think I was unsuccessful at learning French while living in France.
Here we go:
1. I was surrounded by English speaking people
Despite living in L’hexagone, my job with an English language theatre company meant that I was working with and communicating primarily with other English speakers or English learners. I’m no social scientist or linguist, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t the most effective way of learning French.
2. Once you know how to survive, you can become stuck.
Buying things in the supermarket in France didn’t differ drastically from how it was at home. I collected my items, went to the cash register, said hello and thank you to the cashier and then went home to eat all of the biscuits I had just bought for the week in one sitting. There was very little interaction. Even if I got lost or wanted to find something, I didn’t need to ask somebody because I had my blasted smartphone to tell me everything, damn technology.
3. People like practicing their English
The sad fact that haunts every native English speaker who is trying to learn another language is that people want to use you for practice. As soon as I would open my mouth to a French person and try to engage with them in their language, they noticed my accent and immediately started speaking in English. Of course, not a lot of people in France speak English, but younger generations are becoming more interested in learning it because of listening to One Direction or following Kim Kardashian on Twitter or doing whatever it is kids do these days.
4. If you don’t have a foundation, you can’t build.
It’s all very well and good being able to say simple things like “My name is Jimmy, I am from Ireland and my favourite colour is blue.” but if you can’t take a conversation any further than simply making statements about yourself then people are going to think that you are very self centred.
5. French is hard.
Being a Romantic language, French is pretty different to English. Despite sharing a lot of common words, the grammatical structure is practically alien, and as a big part of French is the accent, most of what was coming out of my gob was met with confused gestures. Bad for the confidence, good for getting out of sticky situations like unpaid bus tickets.
6. With all due respect, the French can be a little rude.
I like France and the French people. Sure they have a reputation for being arrogant, but I think that their arrogance quite suits them. In my humble opinion, however, they do have that reputation for a reason. More so than any other nation I’ve encountered, they have no problem laughing at you for any mistake that you make in their beloved language. To them even the smallest of grammatical errors, such as assigning the wrong gender to something, is enough to cause some rather rude responses. I know I am a little over sensitive, but it’s enough to make you think ‘I don’t want to speak your silly language anyway.’ and give up.
Note: Apologies for this generalisation about a large group of people. Let it be known that I have met French people who were more than happy to listen to me murder their language.
What I would do differently if I lived there again.
I realise that the points made above all sound like I’m trying to make excuses for my poor language learning skills, but to be honest, thanks to the Internet, I have learned a lot more French AFTER living in France than I did when I was actually living there. If I were to live there again however there are some things I would do differently.
1. Don’t hang out with any English speakers, at all costs. In fact, avoid them like the plague.
2. Find and interact with French people that have no level of English whatsoever. ‘Excuse me sir, do you speak English? No? Perfect!’
3. Pretend to be from a non-English speaking country, so that using English isn’t an option. This could backfire though. If for example you pretended to be from Lithuania, and pretended that you only spoke Lithuanian, chances are the other person will have to speak in French. But you never know, they might actually know Lithuanian for some reason, which would lead to a pretty awkward situation.
About the author: Jimmy Monaghan is an EFL teacher from Ireland who is currently based in Malta where he is working for the Elanguest English Language School (www.elanguest.com).