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:
- Can you speak French? (Answer: no)
- 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.