How To Take a French B2 DELF Test

As Stephen mentioned in his article about the DELF A2, the DELF is an internationally recognized competency exam, and one that I hadn’t heard of until 2020. When I was at the appointment for my first visa vié privée et familiale, the prefecture employee mentioned that if I had a French diploma or a DELF certificate, it would allow me to apply for a multi-year visa. Since taking a French exam was less time consuming than going to university, I decided to sign up for the DELF. I’d already been studying French since age thirteen, so it felt like another strange, slightly-fun step on my immigration path.

Signing Up

Like all many thing French, signing up for the DELF was not as easy as I assumed it would be. Depending on the test you’re taking (there are levels A1 to C2), the exam is only given several time per year. While there is a list of official test centers, each center has different registration dates, requirements, and turn around times on their results.

After doing a bit of research in January then dropping the project without setting myself any calendar reminders (mistake), I found myself scrambling in early April to sign up for a May test. The only other B2 offered was in October, which would be after my visa renewal. The centers had limited capacity due to Covid, and all the ones I found in Paris were already full. This left me mailing my application to a center in Ivry (a southern banlieue). As an American who is used to everything happening via the internet, it constantly amazes me how many official letters and registrations I’ve had to send via mail since moving to France. It is truly a step backwards in terms of convenience and efficiency.

You Will be Convoked

I have also never received so many “convocations” or summons since moving abroad. These official notices are used by the prefecture, as well as in other formal capacities to tell you what time you have to be somewhere without you having any say in it. Although I had called the exam center and confirmed the two testing dates, I ended up receiving a convocation for the written part on Thursday and the oral part on Friday. In other words – not the dates they’d told me. Since the exam was full, and the slots were pre-assigned there was no way to change my time to one that worked with my schedule. On top of this, the exam took place in Juvisy-sur-Orge not at the company’s mailing address which was much closer to Paris.

Lesson Learned: Make sure your schedule is clear all testing days (the exam sites often list three separate days), and be prepared to be summoned at any given time. Also, determine where the test center is before signing up. As someone who bikes everywhere, I ultimately decided that 26 km ride through Paris’ industrial zones Juvisy-sur-Orge was not the way I wanted to arrive so I took the RER even though two-round trip tickets ended up adding another 15€ to my test costs.

Preparing

Since the DELF is a standardized test, it’s easy to find practice tests and other resources online. My spoken French is fluent, and I had to write essays in French in college so I wasn’t concerned about my proficiency. Regardless, I decided to take two practice tests simply to know what I was getting into and to be prepared for the process on test-day.

One practice test later, I decided that was enough. The oral comprehension was fairly straight forward, the reading comprehension was even easier, and although my partner found plenty of errors in my written response, he deemed it at least a 20/25. Since all I needed was 50/100 to pass the test, I decided not to worry about getting a perfect score.

Exam Day

I arrived early and the exam started late which made the wait feel long. The proctor checked our convocations along with our IDs before we went into an upstairs classroom. It had been over ten years since I’d taken any form of test, so sitting at a desk and waiting for instructions was quite surreal.

Written Exam

They had changed the format of the exam since I’d taken the practice version, and the listening section of exam had more questions per recording, moved faster than I remembered, and was more challenging than the one I’d taken at home. I would recommend practicing this section at least twice (and in the most current format) to familiarize yourself with the number of questions as well as the recording speed.

Once we got past that, the reading comprehension and writing were straight forward. I finished with forty minutes to spare and wasn’t allowed to leave. This was both strange and frustrating, as the best part about finishing a test is being able to go home. The proctors also collected our scrap paper, which was mildly upsetting since I’d written a poem on mine.

Oral Exam

Inconveniently, the next day I made the trip back to Juvisy-sur-Orge back for the oral exam. In this section of the test, you pull two topics at random then choose one to present. I knew I’d be given twenty minutes to prepare, which felt unnecessarily long, especially given my confidence speaking French.

But once I’d chosen the topic of online versus in-person tutoring and sat down with scrap paper, I realized I had no idea what I was supposed to do with this paragraph of information. In a moment of un-prepared panic, I stopped the proctor as she was leaving the room, and asked her to clarify. She explained that I was supposed to present this topic then be prepared to debate it with the examiners. I ended up using the full twenty minutes to make sure was absolutely clear on what the text was saying and write out arguments for different methods of learning.

The preparation time and idea of having to debate the topic made me nervous but as soon as I started talking, that all fell away. One woman asked me questions while the other took notes and occasionally interjected. Their questions were easy to understand in the context of our conversation, and I talked through the different arguments.

Near the end of the exam, my interviewers asked where I learned French and how long I’d been studying. I explained that I started in middle school and had more or less continued ever since. Only when they complimented my French did I realize that the oral part was over, and they’d been impressed by my language skills. It was an affirming moment after two days of RER rides and fussy testing requirements.

Lessons Learned

My main lesson was to give myself more time to find a test center that was easy to access and easy to work with. In retrospect, following Stephen’s lead and applying via the internet would’ve saved me many headaches. Also, confirm that the registration address is the same address as the test center. I’d also recommend taking two practice tests that are current, and having a clear understanding of all the instructions before showing up. Other than that, the process was quite straight forward, and I’m happy to have a proof of my French proficiency to add to my resumé.

Photo is of my certificate: one more for the wall!

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take A2 DELF test in French

How to Take a French A2 DELF Test

One of the misconceptions many have before moving to France is that living here will make us “fluent” in the language in a short time: 2-3 years at the very longest.  Not only have I come to appreciate that fluency in any language, including your native tongue, comes after 15-20 years, but that fluency in French will take at least that long for me, if not longer.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t get around or have conversations with strangers on a variety of topics.  It just means I won’t be able to speak at great speed, have cultural landmarks and references readily at my command, and will sometimes lack the ability to speak about a complex idea.  But that’s okay: those are not necessary parts of daily life in France.

There Will Be a Test

What I didn’t know before moving here is the high number of English speakers who do not speak French at even a basic level.  This takes effort: you have to not take any classes to improve and you have to not speak French on a daily or even weekly basis.  Naturally, the French expect you to speak French in their country and so they have two bars set in place to make life more inconvenient for those who choose not to develop basic competency in this language:

  • A2 competency required for a 10 year carte de resident
  • B1 competency required for citizenship

For those who aren’t familiar, these number and letter combinations refer to a classification system called DELF (Diplôme d’Etudes en Langue Française).  The lowest level is A1 and the highest level is B2.  From there it is taken up by DALF (Diplôme approfondi en Langue Française) which has levels C1 and C2.  While B1 and B2 are often acceptable not just for citizenship but for many jobs in multilingual (but French-dominant) workplaces, C1 and C2 are part of the path to studying at the Masters level without having to take additional language classes or for more technical jobs that require greater French proficiency.  This isn’t the only type of test that is acceptable, but it is the most popular.

First, Getting to A1

My journey of learning French has had many way stations.  I was 17 the first time I bought a “how to learn French” course on cassette.  It wasn’t very advanced but it got me going on some basics.  I also took a couple courses at community college and made three weekend trips to Montreal to give some of that French a trot.  In the last year before I moved here I was meeting with a private tutor at least twice a month.  When I arrived in 2013 I registered for a class at Alliance Francaise, down in the 12th, and they gave me an assessment that placed me somewhere in A1.  All of my previous studies led to my being classified as basically a beginner.  But you have to start somewhere, right?

I was attracted to the pricing of the larger classes at Alliance Francaise, but the commute to the 12th took its toll, as did the fact that you could only move as fast as the slowest person in the class.  But before too long our A1 class finished and we took a simulated DELF and I passed.  A1 competency is normally achieved by roughly 80-100 hours of study time.  I spent a few more classes at the A2 level but didn’t choose to continue on, as I was at a better level than when I had arrived, and that made me more comfortable interacting with the French in general.

How to Register for a DELF Test

Well even though I was in Paris, where we have a lot of DELF testing centers, I needed to find a date that worked for my schedule.  I found a pretty comprehensive list of DELF testing sites in France and after some checking with dates that I expected to be traveling I found the best fit was a testing center in Annecy, snug up against the Alps, and just half an hour from the Swiss border.  I had wanted to visit for some time, so why not for an exam?

The second reason I chose this testing center was because it was quite “advanced” in terms of registration for the test.  A number of exam sites allowed you to “register” online for the test, but then they required you mail them documents and payment.  No ability to pay online!  So, I didn’t want to fuss with this: I wanted to register for the test and be done.  I would still need to book a train and accommodations after that.  So, if you would like that one-step online registration and payment convenience as well, and don’t “mind” trucking out to the Alps, I can recommend CILFA for DELF testing.  Costs vary, but should not be much more than 100€ for A2 registration.

How to Study for the A2 DELF Test

I’m flabbergasted to say this, but the official government website has some absolutely fantastic resources.  Not only do they essentially provide you with a practice test that has answers you can check, but that practice test is almost exactly like the actual exam you will take.  You can get all the information you need right on their site.

The A2 level presumes another 100-120 hours of study, bringing your total hours to 180-200.  Some of the things you’ll be expected to know include:

  • demonstrative adjectives (this, that, these, etc.)
  • personal pronouns (I, you, we, etc.)
  • possessive adjectives (mine, yours, hers, etc.)
  • relative and interrogative pronouns (who, where, etc.)
  • the imperfect tense (I routinely did something in the past)
  • the passé compose tense (I did something in the past that has been completed)
  • the future simple tense (I will do something)
  • the conditional present (I “have to” or would “like to” do something)
  • the imperative
  • variations of asking questions

If you can competently deal with all these issues, and you have the vocabulary to match that knowledge, the A2 level will be an absolute breeze.

How to Take the A2 DELF Test

It’s fascinating to watch the crowd milling around outside of the exam site because you know that every single one of you have the same thing in common: you are not native speakers of French and for some reason, need to formally prove your competency.  Maybe it’s for a job, maybe, as it was for me, for a longer term residency, or maybe just as a milestone in your journey forward in the language.  I can genuinely say I saw every age group represented and overheard at least six different native languages.

You will be required to PRINT your convocation, in part because that’s the French being the French, but also because you will need it as part of identity certification at numerous stages of the exam.

After you’ve all made it into the waiting room you will be called into various classrooms (or, if your test site is big enough, one large classroom) for the first part of the exam.  As you enter the classroom you have to present your convocation and your form of ID.  You will then sign next to your name on a sheet of paper and be asked to sit at a desk which has your name and DELF ID on it.  Once everyone has checked in and the proctor has read the instructions, the first part of the exam will begin.

The Oral Comprehension Portion

You are given four scenarios.  The audio will play for you twice, with a thirty second gap between playings.  The example I will give was given in my practice materials and was also the one for my exam: Air France announces a delay for a certain flight number.  The reason for the delay is given.  A boarding gate is given.  Certain classes of people are allowed to board first.  People needing assistance will need to go to a certain location.  You have 5-6 questions in front of you.  Some of them are multiple choice with multiple correct answers (or a single correct answer) or have a space for you to write the answer.  One of the questions might be, “What was the reason given for the delay?” or “Who will be allowed to board first?”

Three of the scenarios are in this format, in which the audio plays for anywhere between 30-60 seconds in total.  The speakers are speaking at a natural pace, at the speed you are used to hearing at train stations and airports.

The final part of the oral comprehension involves four very short exchanges, of three sentences or phrases at the very most.  One example featured two roommates talking about who was going to clean the kitchen.  You then match these exchanges to four different possibilities, like “asking for information” or “making a decision,” etc.

The time is sufficient for you to answer everything, especially with the second playing of the audio.

The Written Comprehension Portion

Once this is done, the entire testing cohort continues on with the written portion, which has various documents and pieces of information in written French, with the same number of comprehension questions following.  Once again you have four different portions and the 30 minutes you are given here is only slightly longer than the 25 you are given for the oral section, but here you aren’t constrained by waiting for an audio recording.  You can go as quickly or slowly as you please.

Once again, the time is sufficient for you to answer everything.

The Composition Portion

You will now be given 45 minutes to produce two texts of at least 60 words for certain scenarios.  The first one I had involved sending an email to a friend to tell him all about a “culinary journey through France” day.  I felt very comfortable with this and ended up having to cut out a few regional cuisines I wanted to discuss just because of time and space constraints.  The second involved an invitation to a picnic and I had to respond with appropriate questions and the proper etiquette.

Again, if you don’t overthink these sections, they will be pretty straightforward.

Break

Once you’ve completed all these sections, the proctor will pick up your exams as well as a piece of scratch paper each of you has been given to use.  You’re then free to pick up your belongings which you will have stowed somewhere in the classroom.  They are quite strict about electronics, even including smartwatches and mobility trackers, so the less you bring that day, the better.

Oral Examination Portion

You will have been given a time slot for your oral exam in advance and mine was ten minutes after the written portion ended so I had almost no waiting period.  Others would have at least another hour before their slot.  Just after exiting the written portion my name was called and I was ushered into a prep room where I was briefed on what was going to happen.  There would be three portions:

  • A brief dialogue, in which I answered basic questions about myself and my life (1-2 mins)
  • A monologue, in which I spoke about a subject that I picked blindly from a pile of 12 choices and had 5 minutes to prepare (2-3 mins)
  • A role-play, again chosen blindly from a dozen possibilities and also had 5 minutes to prepare (4-5 mins)

My monologue was about a place I had visited recently and what I like to see when I travel, and my role-play was with a fictional French merchant (my examiner would play the part) about gifts I might buy for friends and family.  Again, things went well, and while there’s always some level of nervousness whenever you’re in a formalized test setting, if you know this material it will be a breeze.  My identity and convocation were again demanded, and I had to sign next to my name to certify that it was indeed me.

During this portion of the test you are being graded for pronunciation, vocabulary, and proper use of appropriate tenses: things you have done in the past, things you will do in the future, and things you do in the present.  One examiner is watching and writing observations down the entire time, the other examiner is interacting with you.

Results!

You will get your pass/fail notification within four weeks, but the formal diploma that you’ll want to have on hand for your prefecture appointment will take a little longer, usually another four weeks after that.  This is due in part to the fact that each exam is checked by two different examiners for the highest level of accuracy and fairness.  The tests are also graded anonymously: the reason you have a DELF ID number is so that they can’t see your name while grading: you’re just a number.

It is a wonderful feeling to pass the exam.  Yes, A2 isn’t a be-all end-all, but it’s enough of a bar to keep thousands of English speakers from getting a ten year card.  For whatever reason, these English-speaking French residents have given up on making progress in French and are content to do annual renewals of their CDS, perhaps forever.  I can only encourage you to put in the effort to get to at least this level.  You won’t get long-term residence without it, to say nothing of citizenship, which requires an even higher level: B1.

Image by F1 Digitals from Pixabay

This article also appeared on Medium and on Dispatches Europe (in two parts)

After a Month of Immersive French at the Alpine French School

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 four hours in a classroom per day (two hours in the morning, and two 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 fourth 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 seven 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 three 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 five 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 at Alpine French School

I write this on my second day of classes at Alpine French School, a school I first became aware of because of TAIP 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 four 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 haven’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.

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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.

While 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! 🙂