Okay, so let’s be clear, I am no where near being fluent on the French front. In fact, even when you ask people how long did it take you to become fluent – you won’t get an answer. Why? Because you never really are. It’s never-ending. A bit like ancestry of which I am a bit of an ancestry nerd – we can talk another time and I can bore you then. There is no real beginning and no real end. You see, I will know what someone means when they say, for instance, Mrs Slocombes’ pussy or “I’m free” or “Betty” or if someone was to say “it was so farcical I could hear the Benny Hill theme tune being played in the background.”
Do you see what I mean? You’re never going to get the French equivalent references unless you were born and breed here. But does that matter? Nope. Not a jot. You can and will still be able to speak French and understand what is being said to you providing 1) you want it badly enough 2) how bored you are of being a mute. I came here with holiday/GCSE French. This consisted of Ou est la gare?, Je voudrais un sandwich avec jambon, Ou sont les toilettes and parlez-vous anglais? So here are my top tips for learning French and in no particular order:-
1. Learn The Alphabet
Guilty as charged my lord. My pronunciation can be criminal at times. I surprised I’m still free to roam the streets of Normandy. I can picture the word in my head and I know what needs to be said but my brain and mouth just can’t do it. This is one area I really need to take my own advice on. This became even more apparent when I was in the boulangerie yesterday. So having successfully ordered bread, cookies (yes hard one that) I decided to get Mr Normandy a flan. I always wing it with words. I somehow think that it will just come naturally, eventually or I will just memorise them but nope. Doesn’t work like that folks.
I said it without my usual South London accent of ‘flanne’ I just said it a bit shorter comme ‘flane’. She was just like quoi? without the scrumpled up face. I mean she was trying her best really she was.
I said it 3 times, with a rapidly forming queue behind me and after the 3rd attempt I just started laughing and said (in French – not hard) come here, that! and pointed. I asked her (just to regain some kind of dignity) how do you say it in French and she obliging said “phlon”. I mean how can the ‘a’ sound like an ‘on’ sound. But it does so whilst legging it out of the boulangerie I made a mental note to do my alphabet homework.
2. Talk Rubbish
Literally. We invited our lovely, lovely neighbours over for drinks at Christmas – this was painful as at times there were awkward silences. Everyone feels it. If you look closely enough you can actually see the tumbleweed crossing the room. But you have to do it. Mr Normandy likes to say yes a lot irrespective of the fact it’s not a yes or no question being asked. And moi? Well, I like to say comment?/pardon? to give myself extra time to decode the sentance.The chit chat became so banal that I even asked what days the rubbish bins go out. I mean that’s as interesting as it got. They must be thrilled with the newbies in town! General chit chat and boring chit chat at that but it does get better and you really have to launch yourself out of your comfort zone. It is far easier to put this off until your French is better. But guess what? Your French won’t get better unless you just invite yourself into unsuspecting French people’s homes. Pretend it’s the done thing they really won’t mind. Try and do this at least once a month.
3. Engage In Conversation At All Costs
Don’t just get your bread, queue up at the supermarket, say thank you and go. Try and engage in conversation at all costs. Any costs. Even if you have no intention of doing whatever you are asking. For instance, the children’s head teacher has spoken to me a few times. Initially I was like yes, yes and would scurry away. But as time went on I would speak back to him. For instance, my eldest two are being put in for a French exam bit like a diploma so it shows they have a good standard of French. He told me about this and then instead of just saying okay, I understand, I repeated back to him what he’d said.
He’ll also ask if I’ve understood flyers etc and last term I remarked that it had been a very long term (by the way French people are very good at giving you the word if you can’t get it so they help you out anyhow) and that the children were tired. Ordinarily I would bend the head teachers ear for about 5 minutes in the UK i.e commenting on the lovely things going on, the when you doing this and general chit chat. I want to be in a position where I can do the same here.
Same goes for the boulangerie. Comment on the weather, cakes, what’s this, how do you say that – anything! One baker had music on in the background blaring in the background at 8.30 am. I did think blimey it’s like a disco in here so I joked that it sounded like he was having a party back there. He laughed. What type of things would you say in your native tongue? Write them down when you come back in and then try to say those things the next time you’re out.
4. Don’t Speak English
Now I have a rule I will not speak any English. Poncey not poncey you decide. But I would rather say I don’t know the word for this in French then just say the English word. It’s like a sick warped game I have to just smash my self-esteem to pieces. It can make me get right back into my little shell – the embryo stage if you like – but it has to be done.
Now I really admire my foreign friends back in the UK – most came with little or no English. They all say it took them about 2 years to learn. Some said they cut themselves off from their own community, watched tv with subtitles and one said he wouldn’t talk unless he knew it was right. So he wouldn’t say anything for about 6 months. I wouldn’t recommend this. I’d recommend the opposite in fact – make a fool of yourself that’s how you learn.
I went into a shop with a friend and our daughter’s this week. I was asking for some Chanel foundation (I’m a foundation snob I have two brand requirements in this life Chanel foundation and Lancome mascara – that’s it). Anyhow, I asked for this and my mascara and right back at me she’s talking to me in English. So as I was gesturing to my friend “see what I mean!” the shop assistant said “oh I understood what you said perfectly” #wails. But she was practising her English and was having none of it. Even when I was saying I don’t want to look Orange she was saying “you won’t look orange”. Granted it is the younger generation that do this to you and it is soooo hard not to throw in the towel but just keep speaking back to them in French.
Another example was on the phone arranging a delivery – the young chap again started speaking English I said I need to practise my french (in French) and he said you can do that with the delivery driver I need to practise my English. For the love of god!
If only the Doctor’s receptionist would do this as she likes to crank it up another level just for me. She talks at break neck speed and next time I will be saying luv can you speak a bit faster as it’s really helping me NOT! and see where that gets me. Erm maybe best not.
Which leads me on to my next point….
5. Make Phone Calls
Now so many people say oh my French isn’t good enough to use the phone. It’s probably not good enough out in general public. Why do people think the phone is in someway harder? Least you can have google translate open. Seriously, you have to make phone calls.
By the way, the amount of times an expat/immigrant/whatever will say to me “oohh how’s your French?” I want to reply “about as @&!” as yours” but it’s not now so there. I don’t know if they’re hoping you say non-existent as they always say “oh mine’s terrible!” What is this all about? Back on topic.
There’s something about making a phone call which makes people go all I can’t, I won’t mode. No one wants to make phone calls that aren’t “hi how’s it going?” in any language but that doesn’t get you off I’m afraid. The more you make them the easier it will become or certainly the apprehension of making them. I have used the phone lots of times. I was launched into it from day one with the renovation. I did not find them at all pleasant and I wasn’t leaping out of bed to make them but make them I did.
Now if I’m feeling particularly sadistic to myself – I’ll make them when I could possible visit instead. Yes, I could have taken the easy option and just trotted down to the garage to see if my car was ready – but no I phoned to see first. I’ve phoned dentists, delivery drivers, doctors, schools, garage, mot centres and more and it’s not easy but just man up, grow a pair and do it!
6. Don’t Hang Up On The Cold Callers
This sounds really perverted but bare with. These people speak super fast much like they would in the UK because they don’t want you to figure out, quickly, that it’s a cold call trying to sell you something. So I keep these bad boys on the phone. I get them to slow down, repeat what they’re saying and ask questions. They are naturally obliging because they want the sale. They have no idea they are in some perverse french lesson and then at the end you can just say non merci. And when they ask why, just say I don’t speak very good French. They will the hang up on you. A free 5 minute French lesson.
Now I have spoken about this before. I like to have the radio on when I’m cleaning or when the kids are at school just to hear French being spoken. It’s not as cruel a way to learn the language as watching the telly but it can be right up there depending on what station you listen too. Now, my daughter likes NRJ which is like your capital and has all the funky songs, however, you won’t get much chat with that. You could go all culture vulture and plump for the station of the same name but even by my standards this is akin to self harm and not recommended. Or you can plump for France Bleu – you will have to tolerate a lot of Celine Dion, Pink and listen to the one song by Adele (she wrote others!) but you will get a lot of chit chat, tips on cooking and game play. You will have to endure the celtic hour which goes on for a long time (longer than an hour I’m sure) and wonder why they are obsessed with Brittany.
8. Chanel Four World Drama Box Sets
Now we didn’t plump for the FreeSat (it’s not free!) box like so many ex-pats/immigrants/whatever here. Instead we purchased an Amazon firestick for £50 and subscribed to a VPN (virtual private network so you can watch things from UK etc) for £5 per month. We can watch BBC Iplayer and get all the ITV chanels as well as Chanel Four. Chanel Four do a great range of world drama series and many are with French with subtitles. This is a great way to learn and not as painful as the television route although there are some good programmes on there of which I will come back to.
We watched one box set called Vanished by the Lake. We overlooked the fact that the detective was pretty poor – thinking it was everyone including her mother and dead father. It was a real cluedo, a who dunnit and was set in beautiful surroundings. We are going to work our way through them. I also make notes if I find a word or saying for instance.
As for the telly. It’s not so bad. I kind of like watching their 24 A&E programme, couple or no couple – game show where you have to guess the couple, local news and my all time favourite TV show love in the meadow. By the way, one French young lady found this hilarious that this was my favourite programme. I got chatting to her whilst my daughter does her horse riding. Anyhow, they get farmers to hook up with singletons for a week. They stay with them, sleep with them and its compelling television. We also watched an army boot camp documentary. So not all bad.
9. Find a French friend
Yes, even if they don’t want to be your friend just nab them. Befriend them. Stalk them. Say hello. Add them on facebook. Naturally it helps if you like them and I have a mum friend who I just know we would get along just fine and dandy if I was fluent. So I invited her round for coffee, have picked her up en route for a school meeting and we always wave and say hello and I get her to help me with my french. We had great fun getting me to pronounce the word ‘fog’ in French ‘brouillard’. I thought right let’s see if you can say squirrel.
My Iranian friend Shadi could never say this word and I would make her say it just for my own entertainment. I might add that Shadi laughed too. To get me back I’d attempt a few persian words. We became friends the first day of school for our eldest children. She asked me “what is plimsolls”. I loved her immediately. I really had to think and then describe erm well they’re not trainers, they’re not slippers, they’re an indoor type of shoe. I always admired Shadi – she was a long way from home and living somewhere different is challenging. She also makes the most amazing rice.
Gone off on one again. My french friend can say Squirrel which I was most disappointed with. I’m going to have to come up with another.
10. Take Lessons
Call me old fashioned but there’s nothing quite like having a lesson. I also take lessons which I love but just trying to fit it in can be a pain. So they’re not as frequent as I would like but I always learn something new and it helps with the stuff that I get stumped on. See above! It’s my safe place so it is.
I hope you enjoyed my guide on learning French and here are a couple of enjoyable French facebook pages.