Friday, 21 June 2013

Paris: How to Learn French

These days I feel as though I'm standing with one foot in the Netherlands and one foot in France. I am constantly travelling between these two counties and while I'm loving every second, juggling two new unknowns does add a certain level of complexity to everyday life. It is therefore no wonder really, that I feel frozen in an indecisive vacuum between two languages: Dutch and French.
Just call me Belgium (and throw in a few chocolates while you're at it).

Home #1: Maastricht, The Netherlands

Home #2: Paris, France

When I arrived at our French office two months ago, I realised with a jolt that I could not understand a single word of the free-flowing conversation surrounding me. Because after you have casually thrown around a few "Bonjours", whatever else you have been taught in French class a gazillion years ago (introducing your family members and ordering apples from the market) is really of no interest to the grave gentlemen around the boardroom table.

Long gone were the days where my friends and I happily took turns ordering "Quatre. Vin. Chaud. S'il. Vous. Plait" at the ski-slopes of Chamonix and danced with delight, as much at the spicey gluhwein thrust into our gloved hands as the fact that we could speak la language. As I took my seat at the boardroom table it dawned on me that gluhwein was alas not consumed during business hours, in the summer, in quantities of four. My hopes to dazzle my French peers faded like a departing metro train into an underground tunnel.

Fond Memories

At the office I continuously fretted about not being able to find the bathroom through the maze of office cubicles. My concerns were completely unwarranted of course, since I could not for the life of me find a water cooler, vending machine or tap. I needed to learn French before I suffered from dehydration, or worse; mutism.

Voila: My Guide to Learning French was born.

Setting the Scene

Imagine finding yourself in a different country: 
Different place, different modes of transport, different weather, people, time zones, currency, fashion and food.

Now take away your ability to communicate in your first language. 
If it is Afrikaans, bury that accent in a deep, dark place - especially those harsh g's and r's that will cause the French to offer you a throat lozenge with a pained expression.

Take away the ability to communicate in your back-up, always present, everyone-can-speak-it-and-at-the-very-least-understand-it language. English is not on the 101 things the French like A Million things the French like list. 

Pronouncing the "r"

Completely dispose of the way you pronounce a proper English/American "r". You will not be able to pronounce 90% of French names, and consequently come across as an offensive foreigner, if you nostalgically cling to that "r".

If you are Afrikaans-speaking and used to "brei", dig back deep to the age of 2 when you pronounced "rooi ribbok ram" as "ggg-ooi ggg-ibbok ggg-am", which left your parents in a frenzied state of worry and your siblings howling with laughter at your speech defect. 
Forget every expensive speech lesson you have consequently taken and use that "ggg" sound instead of an "r".

The Ideal 3-Step Plan

Write down your ideal, optimistic plan of how you will learn French. 
Mine looked like this:
  1. Take French lessons.
  2. Listen to French music.
  3. Bask in the ambiance of the French that is being spoken and soak it up.
Now, snap back to reality. 
Scrutinise your work and social calender for the next year and honestly ask yourself if you will be able to fit in extensive (and expensive) French lessons twice a week. Search the internet to see if you can indeed learn a new language by simply listening to it (I'll save you the time: You can't).

The Realistic 10-Step Plan

Revise your ideal plan to a realistic, workable plan.
My new plan consisted of:
  1. Take French lessons.
  2. Listen to French music.
  3. Bask in the ambiance of the French that is being spoken around me and soak it up.
  1. Use a French dictionary. Reading the words out loud is almost as entertaining as reading a Marian Keyes novel.
  2. Read French newspapers. Refer to nr 1.
  3. Read signs on the metro. Refer to nr 1.
  4. Listen to random people's conversations. Refer to nr 1.
  5. Listen to colleagues' conversations. Refer to nr 1. Or use Google Translate to avoid paging frantically while whispering the word to yourself in a demented manner.
  6. Order food in French. Warning: Only attempt if you don't have a sensitive stomach.
  7. Remember at least 1 new French word per day.
  8. Use post-its and label items at home in French.
  9. Think out loud... In French. Although I usually get stuck after "J'ai faim".
  10. Get a French boyfriend. According to reliable sources this is the best way to learn French expressions (and kissing).

Metro Station Reading

One French word per day might not seem like much, but after a year I am hoping to go wild and boldly ask for directions to the bathroom.
Bonne chance! To all of us. 
But especially to the French who will have to endure us struggling, garbling, annoyingly persistent foreigners who want to learn their beautiful language.

The possibility does exists that, in the future, the title of this blog post might be altered to "How NOT to Learn French".

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