French conversation group participants fall into two camps: visitors and residents. The former are bright-eyed and dreamy about their Paris adventure. The latter are like mature-age students in an undergraduate class – they’re hardened, goal-focused and hell bent on putting a damper on everyone’s fun. Or at least that’s how it feels sometimes. I’ve been going to the same group for about three years, meeting at cafés around the city for conversation overseen by G, our eternally cheerful and patient Francophone. The group is three to eight people, usually of intermediate level, in Paris for days, for months, for the foreseeable future. The topics range from basic introductions, to art exhibitions, pop culture and current affairs, to a smattering of grammar or idioms. For me, it’s been informative, frustrating, a regularity in my chaotic teaching schedule, a port in the storm when my life is falling apart, a place to make friends, and a barometer of how much my French has progressed.
At the outset, not only did I have an inflated idea of my French level (gleaned over years at school and university but left languishing for decades in the recesses of my brain), I also had no idea how long it would take to become fluent. I had weeks where I understood nothing. An expensive five weeks at Alliance Française, while fun, did little to ease my pain. Sadly, language is not acquired by osmosis, I discovered. But with effort, little by little, it filters in. I found myself developing an everyday vocabulary that had nothing to do with deciphering a Métro map, getting lost in Montmartre or finding dismissive customer service charming. Brutal necessity expanded my lexicon into endless acronyms – HLM, SDF, SNCF, EDF, CPAM – and the ubiquitous Ça depend. You can see how that this makes for a super-fun group conversation.
The truth is that learning a language is hard and constant. Every day brings new words, new structures, new realisations that I’ve been saying something wrong for months. Désolée. I’m deep into an addiction to language-learning website Duolingo, which is telling me I’m 55 per cent fluent, while at the same time being unable to say how long it will take to finish its course of modules – sometimes I have eight hours to go, other times it stretches to twenty, or beyond. Its short translation, pronunciation and oral-comprehension exercises are addictive – the dopamine rush of a green tick each time you tap in a correct answer is like a first sip of vin rouge on a Friday night. I’ve just reached the subjunctive and, excitingly, the outer edges of my understanding.
Language has become my life, much more than when I was a full-time journalist. I swing between pretending to be an expert (as an English teacher) and feeling like a total novice (in French). I read Facebook posts in both languages, listen to France Inter on the radio, plan English lessons, ramble about in my own head in a discordant, grammatically catastrophic stream of Franglais. I try to speak French as often as possible but collapse gratefully into English when exhaustion or embarrassment or sheer ignorance takes over.
It’s a by-the-glass proposition, this language-learning business. Sometimes the stemware is half empty, like when it takes an age to squeeze out a simple sentence or when you cheerfully tell the guy at the newspaper kiosk that “Je suis libre”, leaving him happy not that it’s the weekend and you are now free to do as you please but that you’re single and up for it. Sometimes it’s half full: vocabulary starts to stick, you respond spontaneously to the assistant at the boulangerie or eavesdrop effortlessly on the Métro.
On rare occasions, the champagne flute runneth over. You make a joke, you understand the jokes in a film, you find yourself reading Libération fluidly. You fall in love with French-language writers and breeze through a pithy Amélie Nothomb novella or revel in Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s insights . At these times, as with all slow, hard-won progress, it’s soothing to look back at how far I’ve come.
I often feel adrift, too. Words desert me, all of them, English also, leaving me floundering in the space that gapes between two worlds. Translation, that daily task of making sense of surroundings not couched in your native tongue, feels like a leap of faith, from one headspace to another. Some linguists have suggested that we have different personalities in different languages. I don’t speak French well enough to say whether I agree. I don’t think the stunted version of yourself that emerges when you are struggling to string a sentence together is what they mean. Paradoxically, though, French, and life in France, has freed me in unexpected ways and allowed me to connect more deeply with what I value most. The things that make me tick – cinema, dance and absolutely language in all its riches and roadblocks – are the things I’ve clung to most in trying to find my voice here.
I guess that’s the sticking point with conversation groups. They are essentially made up of strangers, so they can only skim the surface. It has to be that way. But as French takes hold of my psyche and begins to change my perception of this city, from the inside out, it’s no longer enough to simply speak in superficialities. I need to change the discussion. As it were.