Learning French the Easy Way

I’ve now been living in France for 2 weeks, having left Melbourne for a new assignment in Paris.  So far things have been going well.  I spent a week in Paris getting to know my new colleagues and sorting out a load of general administration, before coming to Pau in the south west of France for a 2-week intensive “full-immersion” French language course.  Speaking, writing, and reading French to an acceptable level is necessary for a life in France both in and out of the office.  The working language of my company is English, which means only three-quarters of the correspondence you receive is in French; and although all meetings commence in English within five minutes they have all, without exception, mysteriously switched to French without anyone but the Anglophones noticing.

Aside from that, France is famous for the volume of bureaucracy which accompanies every activity, and corresponding with numerous authorities, filling out forms, and liaising with various service providers requires one to have a pretty good grasp of French.  I will need to deal with the prefecture, whatever the hell that is, which will give me my residency card and that of my wife also; I need to get my internet, landline, and mobile phone sorted out; I need to arrange to get decent television beamed from the UK into my apartment otherwise I’m going to be watching a bunch of blokes with bad haircuts discussing things instead of test cricket and Super XVs rugby; and I need to get some car insurance.  Within a week I’d already managed to buy a car having first identified the expression which you must enter into a Google search to find second hand cars in France.  As with many things in the digital age, I was able to research the vehicles and pretty much decide on a model before I’d set foot in France and it was just a matter of finding something decent once I got there, which I duly did.  My company arranged for me to visit 4 apartments from which to choose a place to live for the next 3 years, and thankfully I found one which more than fits the bill.  I chose to live close to the office in the suburb of Puteaux rather than closer to the centre of Paris, mainly because I want to avoid a daily commute at all costs and the budget won’t get you very much if you want to live much further in.  With a pattisserie, a wine shop, and a small supermarket on the next street, plus a balcony and underground parking, I’ll not go far wrong.

So, for this reason I have found myself staying with a nice French family (actually a couple whose four kids have moved out) in a tiny village 10km or so outside of Pau where nobody speaks a word of English.  During the day I have one-on-one tuition from two separate French teachers, and even at lunchtime they assign me somebody French to converse with, presumably to prevent me from sneaking off and finding somebody who speaks English.  (Actually, the first person they assigned to me for lunch was from Scotland but I didn’t realise: she’d been living in France for 20 years, and I have nowhere near the skills to detect an accent yet.)  The course is hard work, and I am pretty tired each evening as there is no chance to switch off and relax, but it’s not impossible by any means.  I have noticed I am improving a lot even from when I came a few days ago.

When I first took up with this outfit and arrived in Nigeria, I was asked two questions by almost every non-local I met:

  1. Can you speak French? (Answer: no)
  2. Do you speak any other languages? (This second question came after a frown and a pause following my answer to Question 1.)

Almost everybody told me I should really speak French if I want to get anywhere in a French company; but when I approached the management to get lessons I was told French wasn’t necessary because I was in an English speaking subsidiary.  But five minutes later I was being harangued for not knowing French.  This pissed me off quite a bit, the inconsistency of it all, and I dealt with it not only by complaining a lot but also doing something about it.  I bought a French textbook and used it to learn the basic grammar, and in 2 years I went through all 3 modules of the Pimsleur French course on my computer.  The latter I can’t recommend highly enough, it had me speaking basic French within a year and enough to get by on trips to Paris.  This meant that by the time I arrived in France a couple of weeks ago, and got sent on a French training course, I already had a foundation and wasn’t starting from scratch.  To be precise, I scored 1/5 on the Bright Test, where 0 is no French at all and 5 is a native speaker.  I need to be at 2.5 to communicate effectively in the office after the course, and the expectation is I’ll be at 3.5 after 1 year.

Learning French in Nigeria turned out to be a smart move on my part, because it has given me a huge head start in the formal training, effectively allowing me to skip over the beginner phase and get stuck into the meat of it.  My knowing Russian has also helped a lot, mainly in learning the basics of French.  Whole concepts – gendered nouns, adjectives which must match the gender and plurality of the noun, polite and familiar forms, and reflexive verbs – are not new to me, and having been (mostly) educated by illiterate teachers in a British state school system which didn’t bother to teach grammar, I am extremely glad I have Russian grammar to refer to.  The perfect and imperfect tense makes sense to me in French, even if I struggle like hell with it in Russian.  I now understand it in English because I have had formal training on the subject in French.  At this rate, my French will soon be better than my Russian, especially given the level of practice I’ll have in Paris.  Once I’m good enough, I’ll get working on my Russian again.  And then I’ll knock the whole learning languages thing on the head for a while.

It’s funny how many French words spill over into not only English (which is well known), and Russian (slightly less well known) but also Welsh.  The French word for church is “eglise”, and in Welsh it’s “eglwys” (pronounced “eg-loise” for my readers who didn’t learn Welsh at school).  I assume the French-speaking Normans introduced the concept of a church to the Welsh, who hitherto were worshipping local rugby players and shagging sheep.  The French word for bridge is “pont”, and in Welsh it is the same.  I suspect those same Normans were unimpressed by the Welsh engineering expertise on display when they first arrived.  (Incidentally, the word for window is very similar in French, Welsh, German, and I suspect a whole load of other languages.)

So I reckon that in another week I’ll be pretty good at French, and in another few months extremely good – by British standards at least.  There’s a certain irony to all this.  Back when I was in boarding school, leading up to my GCSEs, my French teacher – possibly the most despicable man I have ever encountered, and worthy of a blog post of his own (and a good filling-in, daily) – used to assign us pointless homework (or prep, as it was called) tasks which would take up hours for little benefit, e.g. writing out lengthy passages of French which we’d not even studied and didn’t understand.  Fed up with this, and finding it was seriously denting my revision for chemistry and physics as well as the fact that after years of attending French lessons I couldn’t speak a damned word, I persuaded my parents to speak to the school and allow me to quit.  My parents reluctantly agreed, but advised that I really ought to learn a language as I would be at a disadvantage without one (as it happens, this conversation was a significant motivating factor in my starting to learn Russian years later).  They were probably right, but I had figured out that learning a language in adult life is relatively easy compared with learning chemistry or physics.  As I’m finding out, it is possible to teach yourself a language, and is relatively straightforward to find a well-structured and accessible language training course.  By contrast, I’d really not fancy trying to teach myself the basics of chemistry from a textbook, or pass even a GCSE exam in physics on the basis of a few weeks’ classes.

Looking back, I’m pretty glad I dropped French because I nailed the chemistry and physics exams, went on to do both subjects at A-level which got me into university to do engineering, and I’ve ended up knowing French to at least GCSE standard anyway.  And as far as I know, I’m the only person in my family who speaks a foreign language (let alone two) and I was the only one who dropped it at school.

It’s for this reason that, despite my appreciation of the importance of knowing a foreign language, I don’t necessarily agree that languages should be taught to a greater degree in British schools.  I’d rather see British children given a proper education in the core subjects, and later on they can learn any language of their choosing.  Churning out kids who can’t speak English while people say they should be spending more time on French and German suggests something isn’t quite right.  The idea that Brits are suddenly going to become polyglots by shifting a few hours around in a school timetable is somewhat fanciful.  For me, it’s more important to instill an ability to learn, and make sure the kids are well grounded in those subjects that are difficult to learn once they’ve left school.

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13 Responses to Learning French the Easy Way

  1. dearieme says:

    You’ll probably find that a lot of the French-sounding words in Welsh are from Latin: I’ll bet church is. In other words, they’ll long pre-date 1066.

  2. Tim Newman says:

    I’m sure you’re correct, but what I find interesting is that these words are common between French and Welsh but not English.

  3. Bardon says:

    That bit about the meeting language veering towards French reminds me of when I worked for Degremont down here in oz. Quite similar experience but the French language was adopted more so when the conversation was about difficult situations. I didn’t appreciate that approach but I also didn’t consider it applicable either.

  4. dearieme says:

    That’s because these words in the early German of England were clearly not imported from Latin, whereas both Welsh and French took them from Latin. I’d guess (and it is just a guess) that the people who converted the Germans in England adapted some word of theirs to serve as church and whatnot rather than asking them to use the Latin words.

  5. marvo says:

    It’s always the first extra language that is hardest. And compared to a Slav tongue English French and German are pretty similar to each other.
    Next stop something hard like Finnish or Mandarin.

  6. dearieme says:

    I should have asked: do you speak Welsh, Tim?

  7. Tim Newman says:

    No, I don’t. I learned it for 6 years at school between 7 and 13, but with English parents and us living in the rather English Pembroke (known as Little England in Wales) it was pretty useless.

    But because I learned it young I can pronounce it well enough, being able to say words such as Llanelli, Pwllheli, and Maenchlocog, as well as being able to know how to say words like ysbyty and pwll.

  8. TNA says:

    Welsh is very similar to Dutch.

    Not in vocabulary, just in so far as it seems to be a language of constant expectorating. No wonder the southern dialect of the latter is called Flemish.

  9. Neil says:

    Welcome to Paris

    I’ve been reading your blog for some time and have enjoyed your insights into the places where you work and I have learnt alot about cricket.

    I will be interested in your views of Paris – especially as you are just a couple of stops down the RER from us. The Bois de Boulogne is a favourite in the summer for walks and cycling plus there is a lovely funfair that the kids adore.

    Receiving UK satellite TV is easy enough (we just have freesat but you can easily get sky too) and if you want the details of the company that installed our dish just ask.

    We have found French bureaucracy to be somewhat easier than other places we have lived although our situation is different from yours. I agree you need to speak at least working level French.

  10. David Duff says:

    I can’t help thinking what a trick of fate it would be to find oneself in an obscure French village desperate for a bit of a chat in English and the first non-Brit you meet is one of those incomprehensible Jocks! Quelle domage!

  11. Tim Newman says:

    @Neil: thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, and thanks for the welcome!

  12. Interesting thinking, Tim, I’d never looked at language learning like that – it would indeed be harder to pick up physics and chemistry later.

    That said, I think being taught a language usefully at a young age is a good idea – having to take up chemistry later in life is fairly rare, but being able to move abroad happily or add another language on top of the basics of one already learned, or be more ‘international’ are more likely situations. Even learning Latin is good as an intellectual exercise, though I’m glad I never had to and was able to do French and German instead.

    They key issue is the way languages are taught in the UK. It never seems relevant for most people. I was lucky in that I had parents who spoke French and a father who had studied French and German to university level (as I went on to do). It was something that was always encouraged. Plus I was better at it than… Chemistry and physics!

    There’s little incentive for the average British school pupil, as everything is in English, especially ‘the internet’, which I see driving the increasing number of English speakers in North Africa, for example. It’s less the schools that’s producing the generation of francophone Moroccans that are now also fluent in English but more the desire to take part in what the world has to offer, which is now so easily accessible over the web. Ten years ago you couldn’t book into a hotel in Morocco or Tunisia, at least in the business areas, without using some French. Now I am welcomed in English before I’ve even produced my passport. Even the room service guys will insist on using English with me.

    I have long thought that Spanish should be the first language taught in British schools. Easier for an English speaker to get to grips with, people are more likely to visit Spain on holiday (even if it is in Catalan speaking Mallorca!) and therefore more likely to see speaking a language as being something useful from an earlier stage. A Spanish speaker can easily move to French. Starting with French is harder – differently used tenses, the spelling is not phonetic, etc. Plus the French are typically not particularly welcoming. (An English person who speaks French will find it even easier learning Spanish next).

    I compare it to learning the guitar as a first instrument rather than, say, the violin or trumpet. The former becomes enjoyable and relevant much earlier on, can be played alone or enjoyed when played in a group. The latter two take a lot of work before nice sounds are produced, or really only come together as part of a larger ensemble that can be hard to assemble. Once you’ve got somewhere with the guitar, however, and started to enjoy making music, adding other instruments is a lot easier. Formally learning to read or write music is another matter, of course.

    Another problem is the lack of formal learning of English by native English speakers. I went to a good private school and had a good grounding in English grammar, but still learnt more about English by learning foreign languages than I learnt in my actual English lessons. The standard of written and, increasingly, spoken English I encounter from Brits abroad is often appalling. I can safely say that the average quality of written business English produced by my Arabic and European colleagues is generally far better than that of many native speakers. I’m not just speaking about grammar and punctuation either – the emails are often clearer and better thought out as well.

    Bonne chance. Encore un anglais qui parle anglais. Les francais seront heureux!

  13. Tim Newman says:

    Some gems in there Chris, several of which resonate with me.

    That said, I think being taught a language usefully at a young age is a good idea – having to take up chemistry later in life is fairly rare, but being able to move abroad happily or add another language on top of the basics of one already learned, or be more ‘international’ are more likely situations.

    That’s true, as I’ve found, building on the basics is one hell of a lot easier than learning the basics.

    They key issue is the way languages are taught in the UK. It never seems relevant for most people.

    There’s little incentive for the average British school pupil, as everything is in English

    That was exactly my problem with doing French at school, I just didn’t see the point at the time. All the passages about Jean-Jacques in the patisserie (what the hell is one of those in 1990s Wales?!) might as well have been about Martians, I hadn’t even been abroad when I started learning French. Having spoken to my host families on this point, the older generation (i.e. the parents) tell me they had the same feelings towards English, especially down here on the Spanish border where most people speak Spanish as well as French. The younger generation has caught on, though.

    I have long thought that Spanish should be the first language taught in British schools. Easier for an English speaker to get to grips with, people are more likely to visit Spain on holiday (even if it is in Catalan speaking Mallorca!) and therefore more likely to see speaking a language as being something useful from an earlier stage.

    Agreed, it is vitally important to use what you have learned otherwise there seems to be no point. I tried Russian in the UK and gave it up as pointless, but when I moved to Dubai and found half of Russia staying there, some of whom just happened to be attractive young women, I got to grips with it again and foisted what I had learned that morning on any Russian unfortunate enough to come within earshot.

    I compare it to learning the guitar as a first instrument rather than, say, the violin or trumpet. The former becomes enjoyable and relevant much earlier on, can be played alone or enjoyed when played in a group.

    This is also true. I briefly took trumpet lessons at school but gave up pretty quickly, and then 11 years ago took up the guitar. A mate showed me a few chords and – crucially – the chords to a couple of songs I enjoyed playing and singing (I use both terms loosely). The incentive to continue was the enjoyment of being able to play a song, and I continued right up until the day I flew out from Australia and they put my guitar into the shipment. The problem with teaching instruments, as I found in piano and trumpet lessons, is the formal teaching involves scales and exceedingly boring exercises and pieces. Vital if you have the talent to go on to be a decent musician, but devoid of the excitement essential for providing motivation, which is the single most important factor at that stage. Like learning a language which seems useless for the first 12-18 months or so, learning an instrument takes about the same period before you can play stuff you like to some degree of competence. I stuck with the guitar because I enjoyed playing it, I quit the trumpet and piano because I didn’t.

    Another problem is the lack of formal learning of English by native English speakers. I went to a good private school and had a good grounding in English grammar, but still learnt more about English by learning foreign languages than I learnt in my actual English lessons.

    Same here. I learned grammatical rules for the first time when I taught myself Russian grammar from a book. And just yesterday I was being introduced to the noun-verb-subject principals and how they affect the construction of a sentence for what I think was the first time – by a French lady. Without knowing basic grammatical rules, teaching foreign languages is very difficult – as all my teachers have told me when it comes to their English students.

    The standard of written and, increasingly, spoken English I encounter from Brits abroad is often appalling. I can safely say that the average quality of written business English produced by my Arabic and European colleagues is generally far better than that of many native speakers. I’m not just speaking about grammar and punctuation either – the emails are often clearer and better thought out as well.

    Can’t argue with that, either.

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