Why is the French word for vagina masculine? Why does “ça va aller” mean “it’s okay” and not “this is going to go”? Why are there so many words? The subjunctive, explain yourself. In short, why is learning a language so damn hard?
As a neophyte francophone, and English teacher, I’ve come to accept that “why” is a fool’s errand. You might as well ask why the sky is blue or why creatures on earth have an even number of limbs. It turns out that “what” and “how” are much more useful questions. What does this mean? How do you say this? How do you remember new vocabulary? In the ocean of words, grammar, culture and habit – where the possibilities in French extend from “Je t’aime” to Molière and beyond – how does the beginner begin? And, more difficult, how do you avoid drowning long enough to navigate the choppy intermediate stage to fluency?
Immersion is widely held as a good method. But that is surprisingly difficult to achieve when you teach your native language and many locals switch out of French the instant they hear an Anglophone accent. Ergo, immersion must be actively sought, and is not a passive result of simply being in Paris (a surprise when I arrived). Herewith a recent dip in the pool…
Firstly, it was the weekend, so I was not professionally required to speak English. In the morning, I listened to the news (dominated by the election primaries) on France Inter. Then, as I was leaving my apartment, I ran into my neighbour. She asked me if I was going for a run. I asked her to repeat the question, then said, “Non, je suis en train d’aller joindre un ami pour faire un échange français/anglais”, then we talked about the weather. Considering that my initial French goal was to have simple day-to-day exchanges, this conversation was an important milestone.
(One of the best tips in an excellent Guardian article from their 2014 language-learning challenge is to keep a record of progress. Others include choosing material that interests you – books, movies, cooking shows – and focus on communication rather than getting bogged down in practicalities.)
I caught the bus, saying the essential “bonjour” to the driver as I boarded. I spent the trip buried in my book. Admittedly, the novel I was reading at the time was in English (The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst, since you ask) but I’ve recently finished the 600-plus page La Verité sur l’Affaire de Harry Quebert by Swiss writer Joel Dicker and am now on Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames). Regardless of my reading matter, public transport offers eavesdropping opportunities aplenty.
At Place d’Italie, I met C for two hours of conversation, first in English, then in French. His technique is to write down complete sentences with phonetic pronunciation; I tend to note individual words, useful expressions. We often use our text messages as a practice tool – correcting mistakes, suggesting more natural phrasing. Sometimes it’s frustrating – such as when he tried to explain du moment que (so long as) and I just couldn’t get what the hell he was on about – but generally it’s a fruitful way to spend Saturday morning.
However, that day, we agreed that after more than a year of regular meetings, we had both stagnated. His oral comprehension was not improving, and I still struggle to speak. This reflects the fact that he does the lion’s share of the talking in both languages. So his spoken vocabulary has expanded, and I understand most of what I hear (see, progress!). Our new strategy is to reverse that balance with more questions.
I asked him what he thought was the biggest barrier to mastering a new language (he also dabbles in Spanish and Mandarin). He said the small differences such as why some verbs go particularly with some nouns (“take the opportunity”, for example) and nuances between words that are superficially similar, such as speak, talk or discuss.
(A colleague, R, who has studied French for eight years up to second-year university level, singled out pronunciation, which you can’t get through reading alone or without correction. She also talked about the challenge of picking up colloquial expressions.)
On the way home, I stopped at the outdoor market near Nation, in an absent-minded stab at Christmas shopping. I talked to stallholders and enjoyed the crowded ambiance, smells of roast chicken, crêpes, the colourful flowers and precisely stacked produce. My brain was much more interested in choosing something to eat than deciphering subject-verb-object constructions.
In the afternoon I did a two-hour swing-dancing workshop, all in French. Dance classes add a practical necessity to understanding, plus all-important repetition. It was a big class, so I had mini-conversations with about 15 people. I have developed a burning desire for that singsong accent so many Parisiennes have.
After all the listening, speaking, embarrassing errors, misunderstandings, breakthroughs and unexpected connections, I’d say the most important qualities are confidence and curiosity. Plus a certain acceptance that understanding grammar will only get you so far. My students who do best are the ones who forge ahead and are comfortable enough to keep their eyes and minds open rather than close down for fear of making mistakes. Not such bad advice generally, as it turns out.
I’d love to have instant, dazzling results to show for my labours, but language is complex and improvement comes in waves. And, at the same time, I have been mastering other things: how to teach people stuff; to navigate the Métro; to walk on the right hand side of the pavement; to not smile at people in the street; to drape a scarf so it doesn’t fall off or strangle you.
Ça va aller.