It’s good to talk
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.
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.
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