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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Beginnings of Learning French

Often times I have heard that you cannot learn a foreign language unless you are completely surrounded by it, more or less living abroad. There is a lot of truth to that.

Before I came to France, I had studied French for two years in middle school, all four years of high school, and the equivalent of one year in college. I thought that my French was pretty good. When I came to France for the second time in 2005, I felt like it was really coming along, but now I realize that my only interaction with French was ordering food in a restaurant or a beer at a bar. Otherwise I was speaking English with my friends from class. I remember my proudest moment was understanding when a guy asked me where the post office was, and I said I didn't know.

Between 2006 and 2008, I did very little to practice my French. I actually thought in it from time to time as a sort of mental exercise, but even then it wasn't that often. When I arrived in February 2008, I realized that my French wasn't that good at all. I could read it and write it ok, but my speaking ability was fairly limited outside of finding ways to get food and agreeing or disagreeing in a very basic conversation. A lot of times if I had to get something done where I had to speak in French, I'd plan out my conversation two or three responses in advance. Nearly every time, however, the person would throw something at me that I didn't expect, and so I'd more or less stare like an animal caught in the headlights of an oncoming car until the person would have to speak to me in English.

To combat this issue, I started taking classes at Alliance Française, which is an organization which promotes French language and culture throughout the world. What sounded promising was that people were coming from all over the world, and that the only language that we would have in common was French, thus we would have to speak it. I started taking the class two nights a week, 2 hours a time, and I signed up for 6 weeks of class.

The first time I attended class, I was intimidated because not only had the students already been in class together for 6 weeks before this, they also seemed to speak much better than I did. People came from all over the world- Uganda, Italy, Brazil, Turkey, Serbia, etc., and the only people that happened to have trouble were the three Americans in the class. It was then that I realized how far behind we are in the US with foreign languages. As we don't have other languages encroaching on English in the US (with the exception of Spanish in certain parts, I don't think Quebecois French nor Native American Languages are really a threat), we don't really have a need for learning another one.

The thing in the class though is that we didn't really happen to be learning anything that would be all that helpful in everyday conversation. I remember the second to last time I went to class, I had one of those awkward situations where I made eye contact with the teacher just before she was about to call on someone. I cursed myself for having looked up as I heard the professor call my name seconds later. I came up in front of the class next to the overhead projector. She pulled a sheet of paper off of the projector and told me to explain what I saw. There were pictures of cheeses. I pointed out that I thought one was brie, one was probably camembert. After that, I said that I had no idea what to say. She just told me to sit down and that was good enough.

I remember the next time I was on my way to class, I was thinking to myself about how I really didn't want to go, and that I felt like this kind of a waste of time. I had been in France for probably a month, and yet I didn't really feel like I was getting anywhere with my French. Then I remembered something; I'm dating a French girl. Why don't I just go and talk to her? I was supposed to come over to hang out after class, but I decided I'd surprise her and show up a little early. I hopped off the metro just before my class and got back on the metro going the other direction.

I arrived at her door and said to her (in French I think) "Do not let me speak English for the next two hours." She was pretty amused and took me in to the kitchen, where she was making dinner. She asked me how my day was, and I responded back with "Today I go...no...I will go...no...I went to work..." and so on like that. I literally felt like ripping my hair out. But even after two hours of this, I felt a lot better. I could actually put together sentences a little more smoothly. So I continued doing this a couple of times a week instead of attending class, and after a while, I started speaking in French with Julie outside of our "class".

One of the biggest things that helped me when I got here was just listening to people. I really had to strain myself to do it. If I didn't give my complete attention I would lose track of the conversation and then become lazy and space out. There were some occasions where I would actually start nodding off because of the mental exertion that was required for me to understand what was going on. What was good about listening is that often enough I start hearing some words repeatedly, which led to me looking these words up, which then led to them sticking in my brain and eventually using them myself.

It was hard for me to notice if I was progressing or not, but I do remember a time where I finally seemed to have a decent command of the language. It was July 2008 and I was in my first apartment, where I lived with a family of a mother and three kids. I was sitting in the kitchen looking at photos of my recent trip to Kraków, when the mother came home. She yelled out in the house to her kids, but as I was the only one home, I responded back. She came in and sat down with me, and we looked through my photos and talked about whatever came across our minds for the next hour. Before that, I don't think I had said more than 3 or 4 words to her in French. She was shocked as well, because she didn't know I spoke any French at all.

This was a big turning point because it was then that I realized that I was no longer afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes are going to happen. I still make them all the time. But once one overcomes the fear of screwing up, then one can build upon their base and really start to become fluent in a foreign language.

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