After a month of French

There have been plenty of adventures since I moved back to Paris after living in Morzine for the month of February, but before I tell you about those, I should put a bookend on my time there and tell you why I think you could benefit greatly from doing a similar full-time immersion program – be in the mountains or at the seashore.

What I expected

I was expecting to learn a lot of French and to personally immerse myself outside of classroom hours with French apps, podcasts, and videos.

I was also expecting to improve, in some way, in my skiing.

In the back of my mind I also thought it would be a nice “reset” or getaway at the beginning of 2018 to orient the rest of my year.  The French Alps for a month?  “Why not,” as the French say. 🙂

That was all.

What actually happened

My confidence and progress in French grew leaps and bounds.  While I entered into the program on the edge of A2/B1, by the end of the month, with 80 classroom hours under my belt, I was much closer to really starting into B2 work.  For those of you unfamiliar with the DELF system, progress starts at A1, then A2, then B1, and so on and C2 is the final level.  For context, C2 means you could be hired by pretty much any French company, though many of my friends have been hired at as low as B1 competence (since many younger French enjoy speaking English at work, and at many tech companies, English is ironically the linguafranca in this country).

It turns out when you spend 4 hours in a classroom per day (2 hours in the morning, and 2 hours in the late afternoon, with weekends off), your progress is cumulative and exponential.  My halting descriptions in my first week were night and day from my confident (albeit short) explanations of the 4th week, when all fear about speaking French for extended periods of times with complete strangers had vaporized.

My skiing also improved.  I was a level 5 skier coming into my time in Morzine and confidently left a level 6.  I left to ski right after the morning class each day and would come back a bit before the afternoon class and change and have a quick snack, and get the homework from the previous day done…most of the time.

As for the podcasts and videos?  Well that lasted about a week, if that.  I was getting plenty of material in class as well as homework and there is such a thing as burnout.  You have to make sure that you’re giving yourself enough time to absorb and retain material, as well as reflect on it.

The reset?  That definitely happened.  You can’t be surrounded with views like this, this, that, and that, without relaxing and reflecting on your life and how fortunate you are to be in such a situation.

What I didn’t expect (and loved)

I didn’t expect to have to really explain myself and be open in class.  One of the key things to master in the B levels is the correct time to use the imparfait vs passe compose tenses.  I won’t get into all of the differences right now, but one very basic difference is that the imparfait describes past habitual actions, whereas the passe compose describes an action that occurred at a specific time (think, “I used to walk to school when I was younger” vs “one day in school a tornado appeared in the school yard”).

But using these tenses in supervised conversation with my classmates (we would pair off and our teacher would stroll around, eavesdropping and spot-correcting either our pronunciation or formation of the tense, but in a kind manner, not an annoying one. 🙂 ) meant I had to describe things like, “my earliest memory” or “my favorite vacation” or “my closest friends.”  It was a double vulnerability – firstly, sharing intimate details of my life with near-strangers (who would eventually become friends), but secondly, being okay with mispronouncing and misforming my French.  This was the “safe, supervised” environment that I knew would help develop my French quickly.

I really didn’t expect the social aspect of the course.  I lived in a giant apartment with about 7 others.  There was an Irish couple whose oldest child was my age in their own room, an 18-year old English girl on her gap year in her own room, a 21-year old English guy on his study abroad year (he’s studying German in Stuttgart) in his own room, and 3 other guys in my room, which had bunk beds: an Australian and two Swiss (from the German part of Switzerland).  We would occasionally gain and lose people as the weeks wore on, as some people were only there for a week.  One night after dinner, I marveled at the fact that we had spent all day working on French, had dinner together in English, and then some of us chatted in our own native tongues – the Irish couple chatted in Gaelic (which they’ve spent a far amount of time studying), the Swiss happily chatted in Swiss-German, which is a happier, bouncier version of the Schmetterling-variety High German that you think of when you hear the word Deutschland, and the Brits and the Aussie and myself would deconstruct idioms that we all used that were usually never used in each others’ cultures (e.g. the British use the word trousers whereas Americans use pants.  The Brits laugh at that as pants mean underwear to them.  The Aussies just shorten everything, so that’s always fun to talk about).

As the “uncle” of the group – I was a couple decades older than most of my roommates – I organized “family dinners” on Saturday nights in which we would sample the Haute Savoie cuisine of our region: raclettes, fondue, tartiflettes, etc.  It was a great time to unwind and just get to know each other even better.  It also gave us some buffer – I, for example, had told all my friends that I had no intention of speaking with them in February so that I could give all my energy and attention to this.  But, I hadn’t calculated that I would still need human interaction (surprise!), and my fellow classmates were a great help in this way.

I started with a new French tutor here in Paris the week after I got back.  I wasn’t about to lose all the progress I had made.  It was wonderful to sit down with him and work through tenses and grammatical constructions still fresh in my mind.  The reaction from some in Morzine (and, I imagine from some of my newer readers who have not been on this journey with me from the beginning) was: “Five years in Paris?  But surely your French is fine!”  I’ve written about this here and here but I often explained that it’s not a problem to learn a basic “subsistence” level of French to get through daily life, the prefecture, and short conversations with friends.  It’s the longer conversations with friends and the lectures at museums that were more of a challenge, and that was what I was here to improve.  But to be fair, you can’t live here for 5 years and not pick up on the proper pronunciation, and I was complimented on my pronunciation by several of my teachers.  I smile to think about how scared and hesitant I was in my very first year in France.  It’s that fear that keeps so many people from progressing.

I overcame a lot of that fear, and I got so much more out of the experience than I expected.  I want to pay special compliments to my teachers Emilie, Justine, Celine, as well as Christelle and all the AFS team that worked hard on every aspect of our time in Morzine.  It was amazing and unforgettable.

Photo is courtesy of Alpine French School and was taken the night of our “going-away” party.  I’m in the middle with our school dog Mani.  Several of us who had been there for some weeks were leaving the next day and they feted us before our departure.  To learn more about the school and how I learned about it (and about a discount for TAIP readers), click here.

In the Mountains…to learn French

I write this on my second day of classes at Alpine French School, a school I first became aware of because of TAIP blog reader, Matt Kern.  I was telling Matt over coffee that I wasn’t particularly happy with the classes I had taken while in Paris, and that perhaps getting away for a few weeks would help me get to a higher level of ability in the language, as I knew “fluency” was some years away.  In Paris I was in the thick of my life – with friends, social activities, and the city itself.  Somewhere else…perhaps I would be able to put in 4-5 hours a day of study and make a serious move forward from where I was (B1).

Matt told me of this particular school in Morzine, nestled in the French Alps but just a stone’s throw from the Swiss border, where I could be isolated, learn French, and if I wanted to, ski in between classes.  My reaction was the same as those of most when I tell them about it: “Really?”  Yet, it was perfect in a number of ways.

I would be isolated.  It’s at least an hour’s winding drive through the Alps to get to Geneva from Morzine, and I wouldn’t have a rental car and would have to pay for a shuttle to get into town, if I even wanted to go (I’m much more a Zurich than Geneva person in Switzerland, anyway).  No temptations for weekend getaways.  I’d also be in a small town, away from my Paris life, so my options would be limited.  Studying and skiing could be everything!

So, around last October, I began planning.  I set aside 4 weeks, bought the 4-hour-per-day learning French package (Super Intensive), bought a season ski pass (it’s around 30-40% off when you buy prior to the end of October), and train tickets to and from Geneva.  The school assisted me with finding accommodations and with getting to and from Geneva.

It being day 2, both mental and actual muscles are a bit sore.  Four hours in class yesterday – from 09h00-11h00, then 16h00-18h00, with a break in between, which I and my roommates used for skiing, of course.  I also took an additional hour and a half in the evening for studying, and have been listening to Pimsleur lessons to and from school (about a 15 minute walk each way).

I’ll be updating you on progress throughout the month, and I also hope to shoot some videos for the Alpine French School facebook page, which you can follow here.  If you ever decide to come (it has been three years since Matt and I had that conversation about this place, so understandably it may be a while) the school will waive enrollment fees for anyone who mentions “The American in Paris blog” as how they heard about the school.  Remember, the school is open year-round, so if skiing’s not your thing, perhaps hiking in the summer?  The town is lovely and Montblanc is visible on good weather days from the top of the highest ski runs.  More to come…

I took the photo on my first day here.  Conditions were great.

Learn French in France? Not so fast….

I often tell people that I studied French prior to coming here but I truly learned French whenever, over the years, I was in an immersive French environment (as in during my teenage visits to Montreal).  For those who think simply being here will make you fluent in French, I need to warn you: it won’t.

Apart from what fluency really means, there is the issue that language studies take five ingredients to make strong and serious progress.  If any of these ingredients are missing, your progress will be slowed considerably.

The first ingredient is perhaps the most obvious: money.  Whether you choose the path of a private tutor (25-40€/hour) or a large class at a school like Alliance Francaise (11-20€/hour) you will need thousands of euros to progress to any level of satisfaction in this language.  You can go to all the free language meetups or do all the duolingo you please (I know, I’ve done both) but they are night and day from serious study of this language.

The second thing you need is time, and its handmaid, patience.  Just as Europe can’t really be seen in the madcap 30-countries-in-14-days dash that Americans are so infamous for putting themselves through when not better advised, French is not a language that can be “hacked.”  The pronunciation, exceptions, and nuances of the language demand more, even from English speakers who speak a tongue which is heavily influenced by French.

Finally, you will need practice and its champion, perseverance.  If you work in and speak English all day on a daily basis (as I do) you simply have less time to practice.  It also means you should do as much as you can in French – be it making your grocery list in the language, or speaking with your French friends in it, who will be anxious to speak to you in English and help you as you struggle (classic example – this weekend I was trying to deconstruct a very funny expression with my friends – the French equivalent to “when pigs fly” is “when chickens have teeth” but the verb used was in the subjunctive, which I still 6a00d83451bab869e200e54f4edd828833-800wihaven’t learned, so we were discussing the change in stem and the various endings).

I have run into people who have lived and worked in France for 3-5 years who have a low level of competence and a horrible accent in the language (think “merci” pronounced “mercy”).  I used to despise them but as time has gone on and as I’ve faced my own roadblocks in the last 16 months (I was low on money, I was impatient, I didn’t make time to practice) I’ve come to accept that language studies, when not required for a job, are not persevered in without an overwhelming passion for the language in question.  In the United States, Spanish is universally the “practical” language to study in school but only a small handful of my friends, even the AP Spanish ones, have pursued their studies more seriously than being able to get around Mexico or South America.  The common denominator?  They all genuinely enjoyed speaking Spanish and connecting to that marvelous world.

I told you in another piece that the visa process weeds out many who just consider France a romantic possibility but don’t have the bottle to get through the hard work.  The reality of studies beyond, “Comment t’apples-tu?” is a language rich in exceptions and irregular forms.  You’re going to have to love it.  Thankfully, j’adore le français.

* * *

One of the distinct advantages of being immersed in French is having pronunciation modeled for you 24/7.  All my friends tell me that my pronunciation now is night and day from this time last year.  But you also hear things in oral situations that you have to unpack later.  Three examples:

1.  “Voici.”  It is customary to say goodbye when leaving a cafe or store – be it an “au revoir” or “bon weekend” or “bon apres-midi,” etc.  People would occasionally call out what I heard as “voici” (pronounced vwas-ee) after me.  After some time  thinking on it I realized they meant “a vous aussi,” “to you as well.”  Parisian speech is traditionally fast, even among the French, and the French love to shorten things so no surprise that “a vous aussi” elided to something that sounds like “voici,” at least for some people.

2.  “Chef.”  I’ve encountered this before in varied situations, but usually from strangers around sporting events.  We don’t have an exact equivalent in English, but it is akin to someone young saying “sir” to someone else their age or younger, either as an artifact of their speech (as some 20-somethings are wont to drop putain into their syntax just as a placeholder) or because they want something from you and calling you “chief” is part of the “flatterie.”

3.  The disappearance of “ne” from negative statements.  In French you need to put a “ne” in front of the verb and a “pas” after it.  Since almost medieval times the French have been dropping letters from their text and speech and I happen to be living in an era when “ne” is disappearing in speech.  Since my tutor assigns me written homework my written French has to be “by the book” so this was a perfect example for me to learn by recognizing the difference.

Proper French: “je n’ai pas d’argent.” (“I don’t have any money.”)

Colloquial spoken French:  “j’ai pas d’argent.”  (“I don’t have any money.”)

As I queried my French friends about this they explained that it was similar to the English tendencies of using “gonna” as an elision of “going to” and “gimme” as an elision of “give me.”  It has that “slangy” sound to it when it’s used, but no one properly educated would think it would be correct to write using that format.

This tendency is a cause for alarm among the chattering classes that favor the (very reasonable) power of the Academie Francaise.  For the person in immersion, it’s reassuring proof that, more and more, you are “getting” the nuances of this lovely and storied tongue.

The myth of “fluency”

Americans abroad sometimes beat ourselves up – often on behalf of our fellow countryment – other times because of our own perceived shortcomings.  One of these is the famous lie: “Well everyone in Europe speaks at least 2-3 languages fluently.”  I’ve found this to be mostly a myth, for any number of reasons.

It is true that Europeans take up a 2nd and sometimes even a 3rd language outside of the language that they speak at home.  But Europeans are humans, like the rest of us, and fluency is like anything – once attained, it must be maintained.

On the ferry from Morocco back to Spain some years ago I struck up a conversation with a Danish family.  We talked about socialized health care (Obamacare was much in the news at the time) and came on to education.  “What is she learning as her third language?” I queried.  “German.”  I was surprised – I know they are geographically proximate but German is really only spoken in a couple countries.  I didn’t want to ask why so I simply asked how she was doing.  “Ask her,” the father smiled.

“How’s your German?” I asked the 11 year-old.  She answered haltingly in her 2nd tongue, English: “I…it’s okay.”  “Do you practice with your friends who are also learning German?”  “No,” she admitted honestly, making a face which betrayed only slight shame, almost as if to say that practicing a non-native tongue with friends learning that same non-native tongue would be unusual.

Fluency, strictly speaking, is the ability to converse quickly and at a high level, within a language.  Fluency comprehends a large vocabulary, appreciates and can deliver puns, and has fun with wordplay.  It also has the ability to engage in high level discussions – say about the existence of God or the start of the universe.  I would never call someone fluent in a language who kept asking me the word for “planet” or “cosmos” or “uncaused cause.”

I might call them conversational – those who can express themselves enough to order food, ask for directions, or talk about basics about themselves.  Sometimes this brings with it a semi-literacy – an ability to read signs and some announcements, but not enough to read an editorial in the local newspaper.

My most recent trip to Vienna left me with a few new friends, one of which was now a teacher in Vienna who confessed to me during our 30 km bike tour of the city that he had learned Italian and English in school but had lost them both.  I told him quite emphatically that his English was very impressive for his not being a regular speaker.

WordCloud_FRWhile a big part of my mission during my time in France has been to attain fluency in this language, I have over the years come to appreciate even knowing a few words in any language.  The doors to another culture can open themselves so widely in just a few words.  We talked about the fact that the ß (eszett) in German is not often used.  “Indeed,” he replied, “the Swiss use a double s in its place.”  This is true, the Swiss are quite practical.  They use septante and huitante and nonante to denote 70, 80, and 90, respectively.  What do the French use?  soixante-dis (60 and 10, literally), quatre-vingts (four twentys, seriously), and quatre-vingts-dis (yup, four 20s and a 10, like you’re counting out change).

What I mean to get at is if you cannot attain fluency in a second language (or a third, etc.), don’t beat yourself up.  Many claim fluency in a second language, but what they mean is that they are conversational.  Someone who can seamlessly transition from language to language, preserving an accent native to that language, is rare.  And they are probably in diplomatic work.  The rest of us make do with “comment dit-tons” until we can get there.  And hey – what’s the harm in working on fluency in your native tongue?  I daresay we’d see better grammar and spelling in our business and personal emails if we put that effort in! 🙂