Having spent a good few months out of the last year in France both Andy & I have seen our French really improve, although we both started at very different levels.
I’d learnt French at school, although had given up after taking my ‘O’ Level for the simple reason that I detested the teacher and at the small school I was attending there was no other choice than the dreaded Miss Jones. I had learnt enough to get by on holidays & so that was fine and made sure that we got by in our first few holidays in France.
Then the Channel Tunnel opened and the Organisation I was working for at the time decided that they needed 12 staff to be trained in the language in order to deal with the huge number of French visitors the area would be getting as a result. I was very happy to be one of the twelve and spent a day a week in College for a year, enhancing my skills. It has to be said that it probably wasn’t the Organisation’s best investment as for 20 years after my training I was never called on to use French at work… However for holiday purposes it was brilliant!
Andy, on the other hand was starting from scratch – he had never learnt French at school & so started by picking up little bits from me, but felt he was not really able to fully enjoy the Country as he missed so much through not being able to understand or speak the language.
Over the years he picked up enough to order food, book hotels and do some basic shopping, but felt he needed more. He went back to College & did a few courses, which helped build his confidence a bit, but then everything changed when we bought the house.
Visiting a place on holiday is one thing, but spending prolonged periods living somewhere is very different and as we would each be at the house on our own, dealing with day to day living then the need to improve our French became much more of a priority.
I’m sure it’s true that you can get by without having to speak the language and we have seen this in practice on so many occasions. One day Andy was in Mr Bricolage and a chap came in and just said very loudly (as if that helped) ‘I need to see someone who speaks English!’ (I can only imagine the reaction if someone walked into B&Q here and demanded to speak to someone in French!)
Needless to say someone was quickly found and the man’s questions were answered, but that really isn’t the way we want to live. Not only does it feel impolite, but also it would make us feel detached from the life we want to live, the life we have dreamed about for so long.
Being able to converse with people & pass the time of day, even at a very basic level, is an important aspect of day-to-day life and we want to be able to go to events & enjoy them, rather than be panicking about not being able to understand what is happening or equally what we will say.
Happily for me, the first few weeks I spent at the house saw me meeting the neighbours, chatting about life the universe and everything and shopping for lots of bits for the house. I joined a local Yoga class & soon started to realise that my day to day French was coming on at a rate of knots. OK it’s far from fluent & I often find myself finding a long way round of saying something that I’m sure could be said in a couple of words, but I seem to get there in the end.
Andy though needed a bit of extra help and so we looked for a local teacher he could have lessons with whilst at the house, but who could also do them via Skype when he got home. I mentioned this to our neighbour, who suggested a lady whose son was in her class at school.
This contact turned out to be Marina who runs http://www.franci-discendum.com and to be honest, over the last few months, she has helped transform Andy’s language skills. She works from home, just up the hill from us, in the pretty village of Viens and has small classes in other nearby villages too and she has been the calmest, most patient teacher Andy (and now our eldest son as well) could have hoped for.
As well at teaching the boys she has also helped us find reliable excellent local companies & builders etc. that we have been able to use to do the work we’ve needed to have done at the house and her husband (a very talented cabinet maker) has come to our help by making a new wooden table-top after we dropped the original marble one!
It has to be said that she is a real task-master and certainly pushes Andy on, but I suppose that is what we are paying her to do! I always hear a sigh when he opens the email with all the homework that she gives him each week, but he diligently works his way through it & as a result is now able to hold his own in a basic conversation on quite a considerable range of topics. He has also been able to deal with builders & electricians that we have needed to do work at the house & has really enjoyed being able to chat to people on a totally different level than before.
We know we have a long way to go before we’re fluent, but the main thing we’ve learnt is to make the effort. It’s better to say something than nothing & I’m sure that more often than not I still get my tenses mixed up & that my use of ‘le’ & ‘la’ means that I’ve said one thing when I’ve meant another, but the people I’ve been chatting to seem to be very forgiving & at least get the sense of what I have been trying to say.
So nearly 12 months on we’ve really seen our French improve – Andy is comfortable spending time there alone & yesterday was complimented on his French and I even managed to follow a gritty film on a women’s prison & a subsequent talk by the director at the local cinema.
I know learning a language, particularly later in life can be a bit daunting, but the following has really helped us:
1. Find a good teacher – and most importantly one you can get on with. The contact time is important but they will keep pushing you forward with homework too and that can be hard. All too often though I just hear howls of laughter from Marina & Andy during their lessons & the fun aspect is really positive and encourages him on when things get tough.
2. Following on from point 1 – do the homework! – Marina sets Andy a few pieces to do each week but he does them & the constant focus on grammar means he can focus on conversation. Marina says most people call her saying they want conversational French lessons but as she says you can’t have a conversation that can go in many different directions without knowing the basics that give you a framework to work with – effectively the hard yards need to be covered if you want to just chat happily!
3. Take any opportunity you can find to talk to people – from ordering in a café to buying food at the market – every conversation will help build confidence.
4. Don’t be worried about being grammatically correct – I know this is an aspiration, but I used to panic that my grammar wouldn’t be perfect so tended to avoid conversation – now I just launch in and hope that I make enough sense to get my point across, realising that it is better to say something than nothing & the French are (more often than not) very forgiving & will help me out if needed!
5. Listen to French radio & TV – especially the news & programmes that interest you. We’ve found that by following rugby & cycling programmes we’ve understood a lot more than we thought as the pattern of the commentary is very akin to the English and so have learnt from this.
6. Join a class – my neighbour first suggested I join her at the local Yoga class and although I was a bit nervous I was quickly welcomed & really enjoy them now (and I no longer have to look at everyone else to check I’m doing the right thing!)
7. Keep smiling – learning a language often doesn’t feel easy and when Andy is faced with something new (like the subjunctive) the smiles can be hard to come by, but Marina has helped to keep things light & that has helped so much.
8. Accept you’re going to make mistakes – even if it results in a later Homer Simpson style ‘Doh’ – inevitably things will go awry or you’ll walk away suddenly realising what you could have said but put it down to experience & move on.
We know we’re far from perfect and that we’ve still got a long way to go, but at least we feel we’re going in the right direction so that we can really enjoy life in Provence to the full.