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.

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! 🙂