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Learning French and How I Made It Happen

When I first arrived in Paris 30 years ago with my French husband, I could barely say a word in French. I had taken classes in Boston, but it was impossible. So, basically, I arrived in France and was able to say "Bonjour' and a few other pleasantries. That was it. I immediately went to "L'Alliance Francaise" to enroll in intensive French classes. I was going every day for morning sessions. It didn't take long before I was completely overwhelmed and convinced that I would never learn French. At 28, I was the oldest person in the class, and I felt like the stupidest. It also didn't help that everyone came up to me during the break and wanted to speak English. As a result, I had little chance to practice my French.

On the weekends, we'd see friends of my husband or family, and they always were so interested in how my French was going. I began dreading these situations because I was just so embarrassed. It seemed so easy for everyone else. It was not, for me.

I was given a break during the summer, as I had to return to the US for my brother's wedding, and it was perfect timing. I stayed for a month or so, and when I returned to Paris, I started my classes again, but this time instead of intensive, I decided to do semi-intensive, which was just a few afternoons a week. This was a turning point. I didn't mention it earlier, but I was actually pregnant and had found out one week after I arrived in Paris. This most definitely didn't help my situation.

When I joined the semi-intensive class in September, I was happy to find that it was a small group, and not only that, no one in the class could speak English. I also found a new friend, and she was from Italy. Like me, she was having her first baby and was due the same week as I was. We had an immediate bond, and thanks to this, she and I had a lot to talk about. We couldn't say much, but we used the French that we had learned in class to communicate with each other to the best of our ability. We didn't live too far from each other either, so we would even ride the bus home together and chat away. I often wondered what people must have thought listening to us trying to get our sentences out.

The great thing about this time was that because she and I were in the exact same situation, I felt much less intimidated to try and speak. Before long, although everything seemed to be coming out backward, I was at least gaining confidence and was more willing to try than I was before. The fear was going away, and my crazy French was just becoming a way of life.

My local shop owners often rolled their eyes when they saw me coming. I got pretty good at asking the same question, in the same way, every single day. “Bonjour, je voudrais deux tranches du jambon, Je voudrais deux steak hache, je voudrais un baguette.” OOPS! I was corrected. It was “une baguette”, not “un baguette”. I felt like an idiot! But, guess what? I never forgot it.

I went on to have my kids, who attended the local French schools, and thanks to them, I was forced to listen to French every day. I also had to communicate with their teachers and friends. I enjoyed many of the children's programs and, to this day, know most of the words to all of the jingles.

Most people were helpful, and I did make one friend who tried her best to help me. I asked her to write down all of the mistakes she heard me say, and I would take these lists home and study them. She was very patient, and it was a start to improving and trying to socialize with the French.

It has been a long time now, and my French is good, but I don't think I will ever feel as accomplished with it as I do in English. I have lived in other countries and have also tried to learn Dutch, Italian, and a little bit of Arabic. This was more fun as it was a hobby and not a necessity. I would say that by learning new languages, my mind has been opened to different ways of thinking. Also, it helps bring you closer to the culture. When you understand the language, you can appreciate the music, the films, the emotion, and the reason. Without that, you live in a world of assumptions, and you will never grasp the true feeling of the people and the world where you live.

My best advice for learning a language is to take it one day at a time. Of course, it is essential to understand the basic verbs, but once that is done, I think that along with your classes, ask yourself what questions or conversations you need to know on a daily basis. For me, it was family and lifestyle.

If you cut to the chase with some of those things, it'll put you out there and make you feel more at home. For example, if you go for coffee or lunch often, learn how to order. Learn all of the vocabularies around that conversation. If you have children and people ask you about them (and they will), learn how to have this conversation, too. This will at least help with daily life and make you feel more comfortable. Whatever you do, don't get hung up on the small things. It doesn't matter. The most important thing is to communicate and exchange with others. So, if it's "La" and not "Le," don't worry and don't let this get in your way. My life with French changed the day I decided to let that go. I still make these mistakes (I'm not proud, and I'm still trying), but it doesn't get in the way of my ability to speak French.

I have lived in many places, and I always tell my friends that I am able to order a drink in about five languages. Can I speak all of those? No! It just makes my life easier, and this is something I learned to do over time.

I can't think of a favorite phrase in English, but I do know that "Okay" goes in just about every language. So, if you're struggling with "d'accord" for example, just say "okay, merci." I promise it works like a charm.

Good luck with your journey. It is well worth it, and one day you'll look back and won't know how you got there, I promise.


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