By Natalie Elvy
I’ve always been envious of those people who manage to switch between languages effortlessly. Imagining myself in this chic, linguistically competent elite, I decided to do a ski season in France. With my A in GCSE French, it surely wouldn’t be long before I was confusing my English and French, like those people who want you to know they’re really good at languages.
Disappointingly, during my first winter hosting a chalet for a British company with exclusively British clients and uniquely anglophone co-workers, my French did not progress. My seasonnaire lifestyle of cooking, cleaning, snowboarding, partying and sleeping, meant I noticed only as I was leaving the little village in the Tarentaise, that after five months of living in France I’d barely spoken a single word of French.
Slightly ashamed of myself, I travelled France on my own, aiming to talk to/at anyone who’d listen, and hoping that French would just ‘come to me’. I became aware that even basic French; asking the time, finding out where the bus, train station, shop or museum or was; buying tickets; asking when to get off the bus/train (all the things I thought my GCSE would have equipped me for) were beyond me. Every question I wanted to ask, I had to rehearse. When it had been asked and understood, I had to decipher the answer, always delivered in lightening-fast French. I would nod and smile like a maniac and say ‘oui oui’, accepting I’d have to ask someone else when this person was out of sight. I felt bitter towards everyone who waxed lyrical about the satisfaction of learning another language, especially my French teacher. The reality of my ‘independent-travel’ tactic was that I ended up on the American / Antipodean inter-rail trail around Europe. Whilst this was lots of fun, it was not what I was looking for.
In a final attempt to avoid real life and invent a successful cover story for my time bumming round France getting a tan and learning nothing, I headed to Samoëns where I’d found a job as a nanny. A week later and thanks to a lucky encounter, I had literally embraced the ‘immersion technique’ of language learning and cultural exchange, and taken a French lover. Shortly after I realised live-in nannying wasn’t the career path for me, and moved in with him and his French flatmates. Although moving in with a foreign boyfriend after ten days probably renders parents everywhere panic-stricken, the upside is language-learning gold.
Living in an exclusively French household, I finally accepted that learning a language isn’t something that just happens to you effortlessly and overnight. This is a cruel rumour spread by people who’ve forgotten how hard it is at the beginning. There’s the awkwardness and agony of being completely clueless. I fibbed that I could understand everything: it was just speaking that was difficult. In reality I rarely had any idea what conversation was going on around me. I regressed to a stuttering, self-conscious adolescent, blushing and getting flustered whenever asked a question. Daily, I laughed along with jokes I didn’t get, shook my head when I should have nodded and made regular use of mortifying ‘false-friends’: should you wish remark on how bread stays soft for longer in the UK thanks to our use of ‘préservatives’, know this means ‘condom’. Don’t say “Oh my God”: ’godemiché’ (‘gode’ for short) is a vibrator in French. Everyone thought I was a loser.
Eventually I got so tired worrying about what people thought of me and I relaxed. I gave up trying so hard and started paying attention to what other people were saying rather than trying to work out what I could say (very little). That was when I started learning. I didn’t have the confidence to say anything, but as someone who often speaks when I don’t really have much to say, I realised there’s a skill to listening, and that you don’t have to ‘contribute’ to every conversation. I started to recognise words and phrases, and then follow conversations. Obviously there were still lots of words I didn’t know, but being able to identify them was a big boost. When I started listening I discovered what other people were up to. I stopped obsessing about all the French I didn’t know and should be learning, and started being interested in all the things I could be doing while I was here. This, it turns out, is the key!
Ten years later and now living in Morzine with the same Frenchman, my spoken French still has a long way to go and my written French remains terrible. But I have picked up a few tricks along the way. The most important is to stop beating yourself up for not speaking good enough French. Instead, get out and start doing things you enjoy. You’re going to meet plenty of French people doing those things too. You’ll already have something in common and a better reason than ‘speaking French’ for being there. Ease up, don’t obsess over how little you know and try to enjoy the journey.
Here are some other nuggets that keep me going:
- Don’t start by apologising – you’re in a foreign country, it’s normal you’re not fluent in the language. Starting phrases with ‘sorry’ means people are trying to work out what you’ve done wrong, rather than listening to what you actually want to say.
- Do use the words you know: ‘Bonjour’, ‘Merci’, ’S’il vous plait’. They may not seem like much, but people notice niceties, even if they’re just to bookend a question / phrase in English.
- Do ask ‘Parlez-vous anglais?’ before you launch into speaking English. It’s polite to acknowledge in a foreign country that not everyone speaks your language.
- Do practice your French when you can, but don’t force it if there are ten people waiting in line behind you. Equally, if you’ve built up the nerve because you’ve drunk a bottle of wine, your French ‘victim’ is unlikely to appreciate your attempts.
- Don’t feel you have to contribute to every conversation – listen to people. By listening you realise how people say things you might want to say. Then you can copy.
- Do take lessons – you’re paying someone to listen to you so you don’t have to worry about boring them! Your teacher is there to identify your issues and offer you solutions that might make your life easier.
- Do remember that you’re not always perfectly articulate in English, but you don’t obsess about what you said wrong. Try to reflect on and accept your mistakes in French without getting hung up on them.
- Do get over yourself – no one ever learned to speak a language perfectly without opening his or her mouth. You’re going to make mistakes and feel like an idiot. People will respect for you for taking the risk.
- Don’t think you’re butchering a beautiful language. When I listen to foreigners speaking English I love their mistakes – it’s sweet, exotic, sexy even. Apparently the same is true in reverse: the mistakes we think sound so dreadful are actually endearing!
Finally, there’s no such thing as a ‘language person’. If you manage to communicate in your mother tongue, you have learned to speak a language. You can do it again, you just need to get out there. Bonne chance!
Natalie and her partner Jeremy run Frogs Rafting, offering a huge range of water-based activities across the area during the summer. Natalie is also an English teacher with Morzine-based Alpine French School.