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Home » Columns » The French Connection

The French Connection

Publishing Date : 12 September, 2017

Stuart White
The World in Black-N-White


I intend to retire to the south of France some day and in preparation I have been visiting France on and off for the past few years. During this time I have been learning French, or I should say attempting to learn French;


I even have a teacher who tutors me once a week but my level of proficiency is not much more than it was when I first started.  It’s actually incomprehensible how little I have progressed - my lack of progress is unbelievable really and don’t think I am being modest.  I do have a helpful narrative which is that as one gets older learning becomes more difficult (yet I can’t find any hard evidence to support this!), and my theory is strengthened by friends who assure me that when you live in a country you will soon pick the language up which does help ease my feelings of underachievement and stupidity; but only temporarily.  


It’s really peculiar that I am not further ahead in my quest to become bilingual because all of the conditions required for learning appear to be in place. Off the top of my head to learn anything there has to be prerequisites. The desire to learn must be foremost followed by ability, tools and/or opportunity to learn and then a belief that there will be some reward or benefit for having learnt. That’s pretty much a generic leaning model for anyone and as applicable for learning to speak a new language as anything else and if I break all of that down, I tick all of the boxes.


I would say I definitely have the desire. Made up of a number compelling reasons, not least of which is that I don’t want to feel like a fool when I in France. I am tired of not being able to talk to people and be understood. I hate not being able to engage in even simple conversation, despite the fact that after a few years of trying to learn I still know next to nothing. When I am in France I stay in a French home with people who don’t speak English (my partner is French) and when you aren’t able to verbally express yourself you feel as if you might as well be invisible.


You are reduced to trite greetings like ça va (how are you)?’ which you have leant off-pat, and even more mechanical-type responses like très bien (very well) regardless of how you are feeling, shut out of that secret French ‘discussing your present ailments in gory detail’ club.  Desperate-for-acceptance-inspired-smiles abound because you haven’t a clue what is going on yet crave inclusion.  Now I know how the village idiot must feel and just writing about it makes me miserable. So yes, the desire to learn box is definitely marked.


If we accept that ability is defined as capability, potential, faculty, aptness, propensity, wherewithal, means, preparedness etc. then surely I fit the bill? I am well educated, have one and a half languages under my belt (I understand a fair amount of Afrikaans from my South African high school education and working there) and I once assembled a model aeroplane, which I think eminently qualifies me as a capable student.


Today there is an easy availability of resources - the Internet in general and with that come facilities such as Amazon and Wikipedia, online libraries, electronic texts, great programmes and websites like The Rosetta Stone for languages, though Google translate which is a blessing and a curse, a potential minefield of mistranslation and malapropisms!


Further, there is no end to the amount of money I am prepared to throw at this challenge. I have at least 3 Kindle books (French for Beginners, Practical French for Beginners, French for Dummies), enrolled with Babble  - the new modern way to learn French - have a private tutor whom I meet once a week and completed an introduction course at Alliance Francaise. If you throw in the numerous trips to France, I think it is safe to say that I have had more tools at my fingertips and opportunities at my door than most students, yet my French teacher has been known to lament “you may never be fluent!” I even recall one of her despairing comments which she made during a revision session “is there anything on the page that you understand?”.


The Donna Summer classic song ‘She works hard for the money’ springs to mind’.I think it is obvious what I will I get out it if I learn French and that is of course being able to fit in, to belong.  All the negative feelings of inadequacy will disappear and many doors will open and not just one that allows me to order a croque monsieur (literally a crunch mister – like me, it loses je ne sais quoi in translation!) with extra à la carte ingredients in a restaurant.  La monde sera mon huître – the world will be my oyster!


So I have been forced to examine what is not working and why and this is what I found: Learning is mostly about attitude - the mindset and belief that you are a learner plus preparation. It’s not enough to have all of the conditions available – the classroom, the teacher and the text books – if you don’t believe that you can do it, if you allow yourself to find excuses for lack of performance it is never going to happen.  I keep telling my tutor I am capable and I just need to find more time to do my homework – after my weekly lesson, I will do nothing until a few hours before my next lesson and then it’s a quick panic and flurry of activity as I cram what I learned before (note to self – completing assignments in good time wouldn’t hurt).


When I am actually in France, on the spot both literally and figuratively,  I lose confidence and am not prepared to be the fool and show my vulnerability…and so it goes on.  But I have run out of excuses and what the French people who I meet time and time again must think about my lack of progress, God alone knows. The real problem here is that I don’t believe that I can speak French. I don’t really believe I ever will.


So I am going through the motions. I certainly never visualize myself truly engaging with others whilst speaking French. I am in awe of those who are truly bilingual as if they are demi-gods and blessed with a gift that has not been bestowed upon me. And until I change all of this, no books, or tricks or wave of a magic wand will make any difference.  Let’s face it - it’s all Greek to me!

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