Our Family’s (2nd) Year in the South of France
Kids and Castles - Our year with kids in the South of France

My History with the French Language

The pinnacle of success in my French-speaking life so far was Grade 9. I wrote and starred in our French class video “La Mort de Marie Antoinette” (The Death of Marie Antoinette).  There was very little dialogue in the production.  The real highlight was the shot of the biology rat running along the top of a table with our rendition of a Paris cityscape taped to it. I flubbed the final dramatic line “Je suis ce que je suis. Je ne suis pas désolé pour ce que j’ai fait. (I am what I am.  I am not sorry for what I have done) by substituting the words “des écoles” (some schools) for the word “désolé” (sorry). But since none of the parents or students who watched the film spoke French either, it was considered a triumph.

Later that same year, I participated in a program at the local University where high school students attended special classes for a week to expose them to the college experience. I ended up in the French class. It was AWFUL. It was my first actual experience with people speaking French fluently, and I didn’t understand a word the entire time. My ability to comment that the table was black and the weather was cold was not the least bit useful or relevant. I was so miserable I skipped the last two days of the class, which was probably the most realistic part of the “University experience” they were trying to show us.

That summer my family moved to a new town and I had a new school. The town had an immersion program, so I imagined French class there would be a repeat of the hell I’d just been through. I knew I would doom myself to never landing a good government job, but I felt I could live with that consequence. I opted to take shorthand instead of French – in retrospect a clearly bad life choice.

French had no place in my life for the next 8 years except occasionally having to flip over boxes of stuff to find the English side. (I still instinctively do that, and it takes me a couple of flips before I realize there isn’t any English.)

It was in graduate school that I met the first people in my life whose mother tongue was not English. It was a huge eye-opener for me. One of those people was a French-Canadian that had gone to high school with JM. We were introduced and French re-entered my life.

The friends who introduced us moved to France the next year to study and I took my first trip to Europe to visit them. I brought my French-English dictionary and I was determined to communicate. One afternoon I decided to buy a t-shirt as a gift for JM and I was determined to do it in French instead of finding the store with the “we speak English” sign. I spent 30 minutes  formulating various translations of the the transaction and practicing what I was going to say in my head. When I finally got up the courage to go into the store and make my request, the response from the lady helping me was “medium or large?”.  I was devastated.

With time, I did make some progress. JM and I vacationed in Quebec about 12 years ago – before kids. It was a really beautiful trip. He did all the talking of course, but one night after a glass of wine I got up the courage to ask for something by myself. I was thrilled when I actually received the cup of mint tea I had ordered. A small win, but it instilled confidence that I might be able to communicate. Maybe.  Someday.

Since then my exposure to French has increased. JM has consistently spoken French to the girls since they were born, so I have heard the language at home every day for the past six years. We have filled the house with french books and DVDs so I’ve expanded my vocabulary to include animal words, letters of the alphabet, and other important kid language.  It’s helped some. Twelve years ago when we traveled to Quebec I didn’t understand anything anyone said to me ever. Last year I occasionally understood what was going on about five minutes after the fact.

In summary, a lifetime of exposure to French, and I still can’t speak the language. Yes, that embarrasses me. But I moved to France, I have Rosetta Stone to help me, and an entire country of people (including 3 in my house) who speak the language to practice on. It’s just to do it – and to get over the embarrassment of sounding like a pre-schooler with a serious speech impediment.

7 Responses to “My History with the French Language”

  1. Val says:

    Hang in there, honey! You’ve picked the best place and people to make this work. Bonne chance!

  2. patti says:

    Speaking of “small wins” … last time I was in Ukraine, I had to work my way through a crowd in a shop. I took a deep breath, and said, “Eezveneetya, pazhalsta” (“excuse me, please”) and was completely taken aback when someone stepped out of my way with a casual “pazhalsta” (“please” – the normal response) right back at me!

  3. robin says:

    Study, and practice with people. Europeans are so used to people who don’t speak their language fluently that they don’t mind, and anyone appreciates someone making an effort to speak their language especially when they don’t speak it well, precisely because it does take more thought and effort. Maybe try having little linguistic adventures all by yourself w/o JM or kids to rely on as back-up (train trip to neighboring town?). And this next suggestion comes from someone who doesn’t learn languages well, but enjoys it – study!! It’s so much fun to study something in the morning and then be able to use that new word/phrase in the afternoon. Okay, enough out of me. 🙂

  4. em says:

    Ah, labels. I spent months flipping packages around before I finally got out of the habit of looking for the English side. It’s even worse if you go visit another bilingual country like Belgium. You see a sign in two languages, one of which is French, and so automatically turn to read the other version. Which is in Flemish. Which, for me, at least, was not an improvement!

    My first successful attempt at speaking French also involved wine 🙂

  5. shirley says:

    Ha, I knew there was a story there. Of course, I’m in the same boat as you — lots and lots of French at school and a complete inability to speak a simple sentence.

    I had a similar experience in Provence while on a biking tour in 2002, where I marched into a shop determined to ask for lip balm. I believe I said “seche”, trying to refer to the condition of my lips, but then realized I didn’t know how to say “lips” (tried “bouche”), and couldn’t conjugate a verb, any verb, to save my life. I accepted defeat and resorted to hand gestures and really loud English to get my meaning across. Everyone in the world understands English if you speak loudly enough. It’s a proven fact. 🙂

  6. Debbie says:

    Diane, does Rosetta Stone help? Is it worth the monetary investment? I’ve been thinking about it for Spanish for a while now, but I have yet to take the time to even use the trial that I know is available.

    • Diane H. says:

      Hi Debbie. I quite like Rosetta Stone. Usually language learning is mostly tedious rote memorization combined with grammar rules, which actually in a conversation is bad for you because you’re thinking through conjugation/tense/etc in a logical way which isn’t how conversation flows. You need the stuff at the tip of your tongue. The Rosetta Stone approach is pretty fun – it’s more like a game – and it teaches phrases in context, not grammar rules, which is more natural in conversation.

      I quite like it and recommend it. It’s not cheap though!