Written June 26, 2013
As our year in France comes to a close, it’s time to assess the progress I’ve made in French. Although improving my French was one of my main objectives this year, I can’t say that this was a true immersion experience where we lived and worked in France. Instead we used our home in France as a base to travel both in country and abroad. Even so, with a concerted effort to use French on a daily basis – talking with locals, reading, and listening to the radio and television – progress can be achieved, albeit at a perceived snail’s pace.
Over the year I’ve written little on the subject of learning French even though it colors every day. One day you are top of the world after a nuanced conversation with the wine merchant and the next you are devastated because the guy renting canoes refuses to speak to you in French, suggesting that your language skills aren’t good enough. After nine months in the country? The nerve! I’ve slowly come to accept that in truth, whether they speak French or English to me has more to do with their language preference rather than my abilities.
Although progress is difficult to feel and measure, especially when at a more advanced level, looking back at what I could do in French when we first arrived compared to what I can do now, the improvement is evident. I understand distinctly certain TV personalities that I once thought mumbled incomprehensibly. Others that I thought talked too fast now seemed to have slowed down. I read and watch TV because I’m interested in the subject whereas before it was more of a chore I did in short bursts for study purposes. Sure, gaps in comprehension remain, mostly due to vocabulary issues, but with an increased interest in French culture and politics and the availability of French material via the internet I expect to continue to improve.
Conversation comes more easily now, especially when switching between French and English. When we first arrived if someone caught me off guard when my head wasn’t in French, or if I had to translate for someone, the two languages would swirl around in my head resulting in a stuttering, jumbled mess. French, at least for the moment, has landed in an accessible corner of my brain where I can more readily retrieve what I need to produce.
Speaking with confidence has been my biggest hurdle, that fear of sounding stupid or making mistakes when you really know better. With practice I speak more spontaneously and worry less about the mistakes. I’m far from perfect, but the more confidence you have the fewer mistakes you make and the ones you do make are less noticeable. Hesitation and self-correction only draw more attention to minor faults of incorrect gender or article.
Learning a language, including your native language, is one of those tasks that is never really finished. One of those “the more you know the more you realize there is to know” things. However getting to the place where formal study is replaced by a dedicated interest in another culture is a pleasure.