So whilst I may be somewhat of an angry *Elf at the moment I still thought I’d crack this one out about how your language or lack of language abilities can affect your relationship. I’m fairly confident that this is never mentioned when talking about moving to France. When do they ever talk about the bitterness and resentment that stem from one person ploughing on with the language, whilst the other languishes behind on A Place In The Sun? I rest my case.
So you may want to consider this prior to moving here. When we moved here I had basic GCSE French. I got a C. Takes a bow. As, quite frankly, this is a thing to be celebrated by English speakers – getting any kind of grade in a foreign language. Foreign languages are an after thought in UK schools. They are rarely taught consistently in primary and are generally dropped as an option in secondary. I could say “ou est la gare?” a phrase I have never ever needed to use in my 40 something years on this planet as, funnily enough, I know where the station is. And if I didn’t I’m asking google not some random stranger on the street.
Another stock favourite in secondary school was “c’est loin?” raising your voice up all nice and high like to indicate a question – as who wants to say more words than is absolutely necessary or remember your est-ce que business? Again, I have never needed to say this and what kind of question is that? Far for who? How far is far? So level established = no use to anyone moving to France.
Now as Mr Normandy was building our house for the first 8 months, I was kind of launched into the whole sorting out services with the help of google translate. Which, incidentally, does not help when you are spoken back to. This included, amongst other things, arranging the trench for electric, temporary electric supply then permanent, arranging the soil test for the fosse, arranging a telephone connection/pole/internet, joining a cycling club for my boys, parents meetings, going to cycling races all over Normandy, forms, more forms, some more forms, obtaining our Carte Vitales, setting up an ME business (after pondering what I would be doing), insurance, more insurances and various visits to A&E for clumsy kids urm also me (see the one where I burnt my fingers) and various doctor visits.
This is what I would have done normally. However, it is a tad more difficult when you don’t know any of the processes for this or the language to use. I muddled through and suffice to say we do have all these services etc and my kids are in school. I did go to some lessons with the kids but that amounted to about 10 hours tops and going over stuff I should have, quite frankly, remembered in any event. Nothing can prepare you for “but why is it going to take 3 months for a permanent supply of electric when we have a contract to say it will be today etc?”. Arguing the toss in bad French is not much fun I can tell you and with the added pressure of a rental exit date just before Xmas, makes it even less fun.
I like to think I’m quite a resilient individual with a ‘can do’ attitude but believe me, some processes can break you and have you wanting to curl up in the fetal position, whilst rocking back and forth.
This brings me to my first point – don’t expect your partner to be fully competent in what they did in the UK – to be able to manage the exact same thing in France. This is unfair and places a lot of pressure and burden on that person.
This may be unavoidable if one of you is working on the house like Mr Normandy. Under a tight deadline but if this is not the case, then be a bit mindful that whilst not physical work being carried out, your partner is working hard mentally and way outside their comfort zone.
I did carry on as I did in the UK. I would ordinarily be responsible for administration issues; schooling, child care related matters etc. However, I wasn’t in the UK and I didn’t know how things worked or have any decent level of French. Yes I picked it up but I also picked up a very unsightly rash on my neck with the stress of it. Although at the time I didn’t think I was stressed at all!
I also obtained an unhealthy addiction to almond croissants and given that I’m not even a fan of croissants, they really were not worth the weight gain and I have never eaten one since. Thankfully my croissant weight is gone but I did forget to take care of myself during the first year/18 months. I just grabbed stuff on the go, was in the car a lot and then my jeans didn’t quite do up like they used to. So, yeah, also try not to get fat.
My first word of advice to couples embarking on a similar move apart from don’t – I jest! – is that there needs to be an allowance and consideration to the fact that things cannot be as they were before. Support your partner. Go to the garage if you didn’t ordinarily do this together or other situations eg school meetings. Yes you are a fully fledged adult and can do this but a bit of moral support is sometimes needed and most welcome.
The only upside of me running around Normandy like a headless chicken was my French progressed at a far rapid rate than that of Mr Normandy’s, who was isolated in the house building process with the odd trip out to get supplies etc.
I was able to understand French far quicker than he was. In fact he said he only knew what people were saying by my response. That’s another thing, I find it easier to understand than to speak although the gap is narrowing on that front. I suppose, as well, there is an argument for people having a natural ear for a language. But I’m of the opinion it’s in the same vain of “oh I’m fat/skinny because it’s in my genes”. Yeah, yeah – it’s because you eat too much or too little and the genes make up for a percentage. I feel the language is the same with regard to ‘having an ear’ for it. Ultimately, if you put in the effort it will come. It just depends on how much effort (the genes part) you have to put in. I’ll allow a max of 10% for this old chestnut along with “oh it’s my age!”.
Mr Normandy found himself in a position whereby he felt awkward when a French speaker approached him and signed up for an employment agency to improve his French. This did, although, it only took him so far and he wanted to go on an intensive language course to “improve his life” in France and to also be able to find work that suited him.
So he went on an intensive paid course for 4 months which included a stage (work experience for 3 weeks). Was I
jealous envious of this? Hell yes! I had bumbled my way around Normandy for the best part of 2 and a half years and most certainly could have done with a course to improve my day to day struggles.
Now my husband was having a ball meeting people and learning in the best way – intensive classroom environment. I was supporting him by continuing to take care of the household side of things and my language progression was stalling whilst his was on the ascent.
This did result in him getting his permanent job. This has lead his French to now be above mine in the understanding and speaking front. This is a great achievement and I take nothing from him in this regard.
I don’t begrudge him improving his French on a daily basis and having interactions with people. I begrudge not having the same opportunity to do so. I have a ‘French friend’ (sorry to my Brit friend who hates it when other Brits refer to a friend as their ‘French friend’ but for the purpose of this I think it’s ok!) who is in the exact same position as me but in the UK. Her husband is ploughing on in his job whilst she does the best she can improving her English (which is amazing) as best she can. She totally gets where I’m coming from. This is a common situation – one person can be left behind whilst everyone is steaming ahead getting more and more comfortable in their lives in a new country.
I do much of what I did in the UK (although add walking the dog and more time in the car driving the kids to their various school locations and back) cooking, cleaning and working in English. The difference in the UK was that it didn’t matter if I had little interaction with people as I could speak the language. I could phone my friends, pop round and I would always engage in chit chat at a checkout or just generally with random strangers. Now, I was being left behind the rest of the family and it pissed me off. People say, “relax it will come” but that’s just it – it doesn’t just come – a language. You don’t just acquire it you have to work really hard to improve by listening, reading, writing and more importantly USE it everyday. This is about my own needs and my own happiness I have to be able to speak and understand at a good level. I wish I was someone that was quite content to let the other half speak and phone up on her behalf. Or that I was quite content to stay at this level. But I’m not and I never will be.
This does lead nicely into when this does happen – leaving it to the other person – which also does not go down too well. Generally speaking woman talk more than men. I think statistically we talk about 60% more. I know of men here who are quite happy for the wife to do all the speaking and in some cases it is the man doing the speaking. This too can lead to resentment as you would not do this in the UK – or maybe you would! It is not fair to expect the other half to shoulder the burden of all the language issues and administration because your ‘language is not up to it’ neither was their’s I suspect but it only gets up to it by doing the calls etc. I know of couples where one person is on an intensive course the other is at home – why not go together if you don’t have commitments of children etc? If you are both happy with that set up then there’s not going to be a problem. But I do hear of couples where one is doing the speaking etc and it grates on them.
So what’s the solution? Support each other as best you can. Recognise that this is not a minor issue it is huge if one of you is a shadow of their former self because they are struggling to communicate or as someone put it “the spare prick at the party” where everyone is laughing at a joke you didn’t even understand let alone get. I cannot stress that one persons lack of or superior command of the language can cause problems in a relationship, which can be over come, but awareness of it is key.
If you’re both on the same page about your abilities about being comfortable with one person doing more than the other then you have wasted your time reading this! I am sure there are couples who are totally fine with the status quo, however, not to burst your bubble but what happens if your adequate French speaker is no longer able to do this? I know of a couple where, sadly the French speaker died, leaving the person who relied on them to not only have to deal with their grief but all the admin and processes that followed. I think even if you are happy with this set up – circumstances can change so it’s really in everyone’s interest to have a good level of French if this is going to be your forever home.
So what I am going to do about it? Instead of bleating on, I found the same course but in a different area closer to the kids school. I can still drop them off and pick them up as the course is flexible. I can also work from home on a Wednesday as Wednesday is my yo-yo day. So this is not impacting Mr Normandy’s work or ability to work. He does not have to give up his job so I can fulfil my own personal development. The stage element, school holidays, my own work and household chores will all need to be juggled and everyone will need to pitch in but it will be worth it and is for only four months of everyone’s lives.
Whilst awaiting my course, I currently attend an intensive (free) French language class on a Friday afternoon which is, naturally, all in French. It’s very good but also good fun where I’ve met some great people from far flung places. I also volunteer at the resto du coeur (a food bank set up by the famous comedian/actor Coluche).
I love it. I serve the coffee and drinks with another lady and it’s 3 hours of total immersion. I chat to the other volunteers and the people who are having a drink after collecting their food. I would highly recommend this to anyone that wants to improve. I did also speak to French people during the confinement over the telephone which you can find in various Facebook groups. This is another excellent way to improve.
So let’s hope my level of French will receive a boaster pack and I begin to feel happier about my language abilities compared to that of the rest of the family.
You have been reading Our Normandy Life!
*I had a knee injury in the summer months. I did a lot of walking, kettlebells and ironically was getting into very good shape. I also fell onto a large rock in the chemin just for good measure. To cut a long story short I had 3 x injections in my knee. The health service was incredible. I went to the doctor in July and complained I had a bad knee. I was then sent for scans very quickly and had my 1st injection in August, then September and the last in October.
Like an absolute bellend, after having to rest it etc, I was keen to get back into my old routine. I took to the kettlebells again as my knee was feeling amazing. I am now regretting doing a few squats and lifts and boom my calf was hurting bad. Said leg is still not right two weeks later (although it has really improved) and it’s making me grumpy. I am also eating soup for tea so as not to put on any weight. I don’t like soup!
Coupled with the whole Covid crap and having to be in by 8pm and I swear to god I’m going to lump the next person who says “but what would you be doing at 8pm anyway in the winter?”! I don’t know but its not the god dam point and I had a choice! I miss Sainsbury’s I don’t know why. A touch of orange nostalgia. The latest news today is that France and the rest of Europe has shut it’s doors on the UK by sea, air and train thanks to a new strain that Twat Hancock delighted in saying was “out of control”. The footage of him saying this is on repeat on French news.
I feel a bit displaced not quite feeling I belong anywhere and then I get annoyed that it’s first world problems and do shut the f&@! up! So yes we all have days like this and today is my day. Nothing a mince pie won’t sort out I’m sure.
7 thoughts on “The Language Relationship Barriers”
I can so relate to this. I don”t live in France but have a holiday home there (which I haven’t seen for 18 months now)
I got O level French grade C a lifetime ago, therefore took one-to-one lessons but immersion is the only real way to do it. Was so proud when I ordered my shed at Mr Bricolage!
Phone calls are a ‘mare, I have to have notes and just hope they don’t ask unexpected questions. It’s hard work.
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Hi Fiona, thank you for commenting! Yes it’s very true and immersion is also hard even if you are living here it takes years. Well done and keep going! All the best Natasha
Hello. Fun and informative blog. My wife and I are planning our retirement in Normandy (from the USA) in about 5 years. Besides learning French, what other advice do you have for people like us who are planning to relocate there?
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Hi – oh goodness where to start! I have covered a lot in the website. Learning French in another country gives you the illusions you can speak until you get here – I would suggest you watch films etc with French subtitles. Think about heating your French home, do you want to be really rural and remote driving everywhere or do you want to be able to walk have access to public transport. How do you live now – what makes it comfortable and adopt that approach to your new life. I wish you all the very best of luck!
Thanks! Good advice. We have no problem with long drives. We live in Southern California so everything is a 20 minute up to an hour and a half drive (public transportation…what’s that? Ha!). Heating a home does seem to be a major concern there. We will keep that in mind. Thanks!
Hi, was your husbands course good? Would you recommend it? If so I would be interested to hear details.
Hi sorry I thought I’d replied. It was very good and I did the same. You can find the link or post called how to avail of free French lessons on the blog. It has all the links etc. Thanks for reading Natasha