Tag Archive | learn french

Mon français est un escargot

Yes, you read correctly. My French is, in fact, a snail.

French snail

It is progressing at a glacial pace, leaving a silver ribbon of rolled-eyes, confusion and snickers in its wake.

But the speed of my progress wasn’t what gave birth to this metaphor. My French has been getting better, and I’ve been getting more confident, due to the Conversation Exchanges I’ve been doing. However, I didn’t realise how fragile this confidence was.

Last weekend I was leaving La Villette to look at a room to rent. As I was walking to the metro, a man interrupted me. After some pleasantries, I told him that I needed to leave to see the room, but he insisted that I stay and tell him about Melbourne and Australia, how my homeland is different to Paris, whether I like Paris, etc.

This would have been fine – he seemed nice and it was an opportunity for me to practice my French. However, he continuously corrected me. He would repeat every sentence in the way I should have said it, and I eventually left feeling as though my French was terrible and I’d been getting nowhere.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of constructive criticism. But by constantly bombarding me he basically poked the escargot that is my French with a fork, and it has retreated back under its shell.

Now I’m trying to be very gentle, so that I might coax it to venture out again and continue its slow trail through poorly conjugated verbs and adjectives that don’t agree with their nouns.

Conversation Exchange

Having realised that I wasn’t using any French in my daily Parisian life, and that I needed to expand my social circle beyond the teachers’ lounge, I joined conversationexchange.com. Conversation Exchange is a website where you can meet people who want to learn your language, who can help you practice their language.

So, I registered as a person who speaks English and wants to learn French, and people who speak French and want to learn English have been contacting me. In fact, a lot of them have been contacting me – I have 50 unread emails from the site in my inbox. There are only so many people I can meet!

Centre Pompidou

My first conversation exchange was with Chris. We met at the Centre Pompidou, where there was an exhibition that mainly consisted of women dressed as Snow White twitching around a banquet. A couple were also walking around with machine guns and at random intervals some of them would break into dance, collapse, or shout in gibberish. I didn’t get it.

The conversation exchange was good – we spoke for two and a half hours, and at least half of that was in French (go me!). When we started in English II was worried that I wouldn’t be able to switch over, but I happened to say a French phrase and suddenly we were speaking in French! We kept this up for another hour, at which point I was pretty drained and started trying to think of an excuse to

Snow Whites - Centre Pompidou

leave.

We’ve met up a second time since then, and the same thing happened – I got tired after a couple of hours and struggled to get away. Now I think he might like me – the second time we met up was on Monday after work. When I got home on Monday night he’d already sent me an email asking if I wanted to meet up with him on Tuesday, and he listed some other things he’d like to do (Montmartre, another exhibition, etc.). I didn’t reply and on Tuesday there were another two emails with suggestions. I replied that I was booked out for the week with conversation exchanges (which I was), and he said that we could go for a drive to a castle in the country on the weekend. I’m not sure how to get rid of him – I can’t say I’m not

Snow Whites - Centre Pompidou

interested when he hasn’t formally declared that he is . . . suggestions anyone?

My second conversation exchange was with Thibaut. Thibaut was lovely. Having had a rather stressful day at work (mainly getting lost on my way to new classes), I just couldn’t get my brain around the French language, so we started in English. After meeting at Opera we went to a bar – my French needs work at the best of times. Add background noise to the mix and I’m useless. So we continued in English, which he handled easily – he’s from Strasbourg and has lived in Germany and the US, so has fluent English. One of the things he couldn’t adjust to in the US was the standard of everyone’s personal presentation. Apparently the other students at his university couldn’t understand why he was always so dressed up (wearing a nice shirt and jeans). He couldn’t understand why people would leave the house in their pyjamas. I felt a bit bad when I told him that people went out in their pjs in Australia too – though I quickly assured him that I didn’t.

Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

David’s English wasn’t as good as Chris or Thibaut’s. He has quite a strong French accent and frequently punctuated his sentences with ‘oh my god’, which I thought was very cute. We met under arch in front of the Louvre and sat for an hour in the Tuileries gardens – unlike Chris, where there was a French part of the session and an English part of the session, David and I kept switching between the two. I would speak in French for a few minutes, until I came across something that I couldn’t say, then we would switch to English for a few minutes, until David came across something that he couldn’t say, at which point we would return to French.

Afterwards we went to get ice-cream on Rue de Seine in the Quartier Saint Michel. The Quartier was beautiful and quiet, with narrow, winding streets and tiny, tranquil gardens on some of the corners. That is, until we got to the ice-cream street. A road of bistros, brasseries and pizzerias cut through Rue de Seine, and on the other side of the intersection there was a large fruit and veggie shop, a stall selling smelly cheeses, sausages, salty meat and loaves of bread, and another stall selling olives, pâté and salads. We had ice-cream at Grom – an Italian ice-cream parlour with a queue trailing down the street. The ice-cream was worth the queue.

The next Tuesday I met with Aurélien. I was looking forward to this one – after meeting three different guys over four different meetings, I couldn’t wait to just hang out with a girl for a bit. So I was a bit shocked when, as I was waiting at a metro station, a guy approached me and started talking to me in English. For some reason I thought Aurélien was a girl’s name; and I had to pretend that my surprised daze was due to being incredibly absorbed in my book.

Aurélien was nice, but I doubt we’ll meet up again. My emails were starting to pile up, so I didn’t see much point in regularly seeing someone about whom I felt lukewarm when there were so many other people to meet.

Parc de Bercy

And on Thursday I met Nathalie – who really was a girl! We met at Cour Saint Emillion after I finished work, and spent a couple of hours walking through Parc de Bercy as we conversed – the first half in French, the second in English. Nathalie was awesome. She is an Engineer who wants to move to Canada, the US or Australia to work, and who has already done a lot of travelling in the US and Canada. It was just really nice to hang out with a girl – maybe it’s because I went to an all girls’ high school, but having close girlfriends is really important to me. She also seemed to think I was hilarious in both English and French, which helped get her into my good books. I’d really like to meet up with her again.

On Saturday I had two conversation exchanges organised – Pierre in the afternoon and Inés in the evening. I met Pierre one station down from where I’d met Nathalie two days before – first, because he lived in this arrondissement, and second, because I already knew I liked the area. Unfortunately he asked for the address of this blog, so I can’t give you too many dirty details. :p

Seriously, though, it was a lovely, laid-back afternoon. We had some ice-creams and strolled around Parc de Bercy, and (because I’m lazy and my brain doesn’t work well in humidity) we spoke more English than French. He was also good at correcting my frequent errors – the most irritating one is that I keep conjugating verbs that should go with être in the passé composé with avoir.

After I left Pierre I went to meet Inés (my second girl – yay!) at Saint Michel, but she cancelled at the last minute. Suddenly I was in the middle of Paris with nothing to do on a warm evening – one of the first times this has happened to me since I arrived. I’d been so busy organising work, rooms, a bank account and conversation exchanges over the past month that it had been ages since I’d just enjoyed being in Paris.

I left Saint Michel and headed to Paris-Plages, crossing Ile de la Cité and pausing as I passed the Notre Dame.

Paris-Plages is a few kilometres of artificial beaches that runs down one of the banks of the Seine during summer – form 20 July to 20 August this year. As most Parisians leave the city, the tourists and the humidity over the summer to visit France’s real beaches, Paris-Plages was instigated for residents who had to remain in the capital. When I was first told about it a few weeks ago, I rolled my eyes.

Now, I have visited it twice and I love it. The road is closed and dotted with potted palm trees. People relax on banana lounges on the grass and the sand, and there are several ice-cream vendors and kiosks along the stretch. Although you can’t go swimming in the Seine (at least, you wouldn’t want to), there are a number of fountains and showers that spray a fine mist across the road to keep you cool, and there’s even a swimming pool for children. There are also a couple of playgrounds, a picnic ground and an area where you can play lawn bowls. Underneath the bridges that cross the Seine, there are frequently musicians – ranging from A Capella opera to bands of five. There are also regular events – including dance lessons from 5pm to 8pm near Pont Neuf. On both visits I have been too late to see the actual lessons, but it’s a lot of fun to watch all of the couples switching from salsa to le rock to the waltz as the music changes.

As I left the rock and roll dancers on Saturday night, I stared at the small groups of people drinking wine and continued my stroll down the bank of the Seine, calm and happy. It may not be London, and it may not be Melbourne, but Paris isn’t a bad place to be lonely.

French school

With my second at interview at BTL scheduled for Monday June 28, I didn’t think I’d be starting work until the following week. Hence I decided to enrol in French language classes. Although I’m speaking a little more than I was at the beginning, I’m astounded by how much I’ve forgotten, and think the refresher will be useful.

I arrive at Ecole France Langue at 8am for my entrance test, which will determine what level I am. The test gets progressively harder, and while I’m confident at the beginning, that confidence soon deteriorates as I stop knowing and start guessing the answers to questions.

When I’m finished, a man takes me to another room to have a chat in French and to correct my test. I only said about 5 words, but I think my accent being fairly decent and my comprehension led him to believe that my level of fluency is higher than it actually is. Then he attacked my test with his red pen. I breathed a sigh of relief as he started doing little ticks – tick, tick, tick – suddenly, a big red cross! And another. And more! Some of the questions I hadn’t read correctly and had to answer them verbally (and passed with flying colours), but by the end of the massacre my test was a mess of red ink.

He looked at the test, sighed, and then looked at me. “I don’t know what to do with you.”

Really? I thought. You’re not the only one.

Apparently I demonstrated knowledge of a number of advanced parts of the language, but I also made a lot of elementary mistakes. This meant that he didn’t know what level to put me in. I left him to the decision, and somehow I ended up in level B2 (upper-intermediate), which I think is a level higher than I was last time. Don’t ask me how I’ve progressed, not having spoken nor read any French in years.

Learning a foreign language as an adult is like going to school as a child again. Not only does your ability to communicate drop to that of a primary school student, but there’s a larger focus on games as a method of learning. As an adult, you get used to receiving lectures and taking notes. When learning a language, you are expected to speak more than the teacher does, and games are a good way to ensure this.

How many students can you get into a phone booth - first attempt

For example, when I arrived on the Wednesday our class had been put into the same room as another. A woman then told us we were going on ‘missions’ – there were six stages we would have to complete over the next three hours, each of which would involve us having to ask people in the streets for help so we could answer questions or take photos of certain things. For our first stage, my team and I had a sheet of paper with eight photos on it, which we had to replicate, as well as going to one of the school’s other offices and taking a photo of someone who worked there.

My team and I identified the first few images, and suddenly the other two girls started running for the targets –

How many students can you get into a phone booth - second attempt

I don’t remember the last time I saw that kind of enthusiasm at school. When we went to the school and took a photo of one of the teachers giving a class, I was politely explaining what we were doing as I took the photo, while one of my team mates had already run back to the front door and was calling out ‘hurry up Jolie – we’ll lose!’

Now, I’m all for winning, but it was a hot day and I was in a skirt. And it was just a class activity – it’s not like there were any prizes (go on – ridicule me for being soulless and for having forgotten how to be childlike).

Other challenges included finding a museum and getting photos there, fitting as many students as we could into a phone booth (see the photos – entertaining, but very sweaty), taking a photo with a child, getting the brochure from a chocolate shop and matching shop names to pictures of products that they sold. It was fun, but it was in the low 30s and most of us had tired of the activity before the three hours were up.

The ability to communicate (or lack thereof) is the other childlike aspect to learning a foreign language as an adult. Grown men and women start to act like eight-year-olds, being attached to their ideas, but not knowing how to express them. I did a month of language school in Vichy at the end of 2006, and I grew incredibly distressed when I couldn’t say what I wanted (one time I was close to tears). This time I’m more detached, which makes it more amusing to watch other people get increasingly passionate about little things. There were two girls in my class in particular – one of them clearly felt very strongly about a number of issues, but because she couldn’t say everything she wanted to, her volume would just increase and her gestures would get bigger as her monologues continued. The other would get extraordinarily attached to grammatical structures, or he said/she said debates, and because she couldn’t use many words she would just keep repeating the same couple of statements – it didn’t seem to matter how many times the teacher said he knew, she would keep saying the same thing until she realised she was just saying the same thing.

Do I think the week at school helped my French? Yes, in the sense that it got me speaking again. However, I don’t think I was there long enough for it to stick, and the fact that I speak English at work means it will be a while before I start having in-depth conversations in everyday life.