It’s good to talk

French Property News - - Contents - Linda Viandier has been teach­ing English as a se­cond lan­guage in Paris for 10 years

Tips on learn­ing French from a woman who’s had her share of em­bar­rass­ment

At the lo­cal mar­ket the other day I made a joke with a stall­holder. He was sell­ing men’s socks, and I told him that I would have to check the size with my hus­band be­fore buy­ing them. He rep­ri­manded me for not know­ing my hus­band’s sock size, to which I replied: “Mais j’en ai plusieurs” (But I have more than one). This amused both him and some other men at the stall and they all joined in the rev­elry. Hu­mour is a mar­vel­lous key for open­ing the door of ac­cep­tance. But I was not al­ways so at ease with the French lan­guage.

The Lit­tle Mer­maid

When first in­tro­duced to Ni­cole, one of my hus­band’s old­est and dear­est friends, our re­la­tion­ship was strained to say the least. It had nothing to do with that par­tic­u­lar brand of fe­male ri­valry that French women are fa­mous for; she sim­ply did not warm to me. How could she when I was dis­play­ing about as much per­son­al­ity as a din­ing chair? Ni­cole sim­ply failed to see what her amus­ing, charm­ing, ar­tic­u­late friend could pos­si­bly find in­ter­est­ing in some­one so bland, blonde and for­eign. I was aware of how I was be­ing viewed, but was pow­er­less to do any­thing about it. I, who am burst­ing with lan­guage and ideas and funny sto­ries and mis­cel­la­neous facts was, in ef­fect, mute, un­able to display wit or ex­press an opin­ion. Like the Lit­tle Mer­maid, I had traded my voice for love, and was locked in­side my body with­out the means to an­i­mate it. I had to take dras­tic ac­tion and fast.

Humpty Numpty

Hav­ing only ever stud­ied French for two years at sec­ondary school, I took my­self off to a be­gin­ners’ French class at night school. Now, for those of you who have never at­tended one of these classes, there are two types of ‘be­gin­ners’ who go along. The first type, like me, is an ab­so­lute numpty who hardly speaks a word of the given lan­guage. The se­cond type is a sort of se­rial lan­guage class taker, who has hol­i­dayed in Dor­dogne (or wher­ever) ev­ery year since the 1970s. They go to the classes to show off their con­ver­sa­tional skills and make peo­ple like me feel stupid.

Tongue-tied and hu­mil­i­ated over your lack of French lan­guage skills? Don’t give up, says Linda Viandier who has been there, said that Like the Lit­tle Mer­maid, I had traded my voice for love

I could count to 12 and knew that ‘ quinze’ was 15 (as I’d stayed in a ho­tel room quinze in Paris when I was 17), plus I could rat­tle off about 20 rel­a­tively use­less nouns.

I had a sketchy grasp of the verb ‘ être’ and an even sketchier one of ‘ avoir’. The first email that my hus­band sent to me in French con­sisted of four lines, and took me 40 min­utes to de­ci­pher with the aid of a French-english dic­tio­nary, the only word that I was re­ally sure of be­ing ‘ je’. But, al­though I ev­i­dently did not pos­sess nat­u­ral lan­guage ac­qui­si­tion skills, my mo­ti­va­tion was strong, and soon I was the only ‘numpty’ left in the class, the others hav­ing dropped out un­der the sheer weight of hu­mil­i­a­tion.

As I vis­ited Paris more and more fre­quently, and with a bona fide French per­son, my in­sider knowl­edge be­gan to sur­pass that of the smug el­e­ments in the group un­til many of them left also, leaving a pleas­ant lit­tle core of gen­uine learn­ers.

Pil­grim’s progress

Backed up by lis­ten­ing to Teach Your­self French CDS in the car, and read­ing the ad­ver­tis­ing posters on the Métro, I made ten­ta­tive steps into sim­ple ex­changes in shops and restau­rants. Most of the time my ram­blings were met with a look of to­tal con­fu­sion or an as­ton­ished ‘ Com­ment?’ Frus­trat­ingly, on the odd oc­ca­sion when peo­ple did un­der­stand me, they mostly replied in English. This was ei­ther due to the fact that the French love to prac­tise their English, or they could not stand the sound of me mur­der­ing their beloved mother tongue.

Even­tu­ally, I was able to read short re­ports in the Di­rect Matin (a free daily news­pa­per) with rel­a­tive ease, and grasp the gist of what was been said on TV, and, if un­able ex­actly to join in fully in a con­ver­sa­tion, I could at least nod and laugh in the ap­pro­pri­ate places.

My ma­jor break­through came the day that I made a French per­son laugh for the first time – a snooty shop as­sis­tant in a fancy bou­tique on the Rue de Rennes to boot. My break­through with Ni­cole came later at an­other din­ner, this time at our apart­ment, when she too had a for­eign part­ner and re­alised the dif­fi­cul­ties that he was go­ing through try­ing to be seen and ac­cepted, and I took an in­ter­est in him. Also, by this time my French had im­proved quite a bit.

So, bonne chance, and re­mem­ber mak­ing mis­takes is good. It means that you are push­ing your­self out of your com­fort zone. And if prac­tice doesn’t ex­actly make per­fect, it does make progress, no mat­ter how small. The most im­por­tant thing is to have a go.

My break­through came the day I made a French per­son laugh for the first time – a snooty shop as­sis­tant in a fancy bou­tique on the Rue de Rennes to boot

Dive into the lan­guage soup, says Linda

Prac­tice makes progress

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