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.