Forget what you have heard, studying a language in the country of the target language is not easy.
I hear it all the time:
You’ll pick it up so fast once you get there; It will be so much easier when you’re actually in France; The French will really appreciate it if you just attempt to speak their language.
I perhaps wouldn’t go as far as to say that any person who has ever spoken those words is a liar, but I would be willing to bet that they are not speaking from personal experience or that, if they are, they are sugar-coating the truth so as not to scare me.
You’ll pick it up so fast once you get there
Immersion is often said to be the best way to learn a language, and I don’t entirely disagree with that assessment, but immersion is not simply being in a country or even living there. The reality is that people can and do spend time in foreign countries and leave having learnt no more than how to order une biere, s’il vous plait (which in itself is the mark of a tourist. The French prefer to order a demi, roughly a half-pint).
In 2015, while in Brussels with the university, I was surprised to meet our MEPs who spend a significant amount of time between Brussels and Strasbourg at the European Parliament and can do no more than, as Nigel Farage once famously put it, navigate a wine list. When I pressed the issue it seemed to cause offence, as if it was ridiculous to suggest that a person who works between two French-speaking countries should be expected to speak French. What do you mean how is my French? I speak English. Don’t you know that everyone speaks English?
(Perhaps now, following recent political developments, they will be glad not to have bothered).
While I believe it to be a shame, we English-speakers can and do get away with not bothering. We assume that everyone else will speak English. If we slow down, point and flap our arms they’ll understand us, right? In reality, everyone does not speak English. The assumption probably stems from the fact that we can very easily get by on holiday, but there is a difference between ordering a round of drinks at a bar, or speaking with the receptionist at your accommodation who encounters tourists on a daily basis, and setting up a bank account or trying to navigate a university campus.
I do, however, believe that I have picked it up – of course my French is improving – but it has not been anything close to fast by anyone’s measure.
It will be so much easier when you’re actually in France
The implication being that French becomes easier in France?
It’s still French, and it’s still a difficult language.
Every noun has a grammatical gender, sometimes that gender can change and sometimes it cannot: cars are always girls; pens are always boys; and a student can be either. To make matters worse, sometimes the grammatical gender contradicts what you would logically expect the noun to be: masculinity is a girl, and feminism is a boy. Confused? Well it doesn’t end there – one word can have different meanings depending on its gender: La chèvre is a goat, while Le chèvre is cheese. Gender will also change the spelling and pronunciation of adjectives, definite/indefinite/partitive articles, and sometimes even the verb if you are using the past tense or other compound tenses and depending on the verb and the word order of the sentence. Do you get it yet? No, me neither. If you ask a French person to explain why or how these rules apply, they will tell you “that’s just the way it is, don’t ask silly questions!”
It is these foreign, confusing and illogical grammar rules that separate the sheep from the (always female) chèvres. Every language has them and every language student has to learn them and there is no way around it.
The French will really appreciate it if you just attempt to speak the language
In my experience, I have found that the man behind the till at the supermarket, or the lady in the bank really could not care less if you try – no one is handing out gold stars or a pat on the back. I have even experienced situations in which I have walked into a shop/bar/café and the staff will roll their eyes before I even open my mouth, ‘Erasmus…’ Apparently our reputation proceeds us, and we seem to stand out.
In the interests of fairness, there have been a few cases in which I feel like the effort has been appreciated, but those also tend to be the cases in which the person with whom you are speaking is an empathetic English-speaker who tries to help by continuing the conversation in your mother-tongue. While this can be nice, you can’t help but feel like you’re cheating.
Being Scottish is great. I have been lucky to find that whenever I tell someone that I’m from Scotland it is generally well received, even if it is, as it was recently at a bar in town, ‘Scotland!? Trop Bien! Go Cardiff!’ – I appreciate the enthusiasm.
I have never thought that I have a particularly strong Scottish accent. I still don’t believe that I do. Since leaving school I have been extremely lucky to have spent a lot of time abroad and I feel that each experience has had an impact on the way that I speak. I have come to understand that life is easier if I slow my speech and drop all those Scottish words other English-speakers find confusing.
Two years ago I remember working in America and, as we would be working with children, being constantly reprimanded by colleagues for my language, Iain! You can’t say that when the kids get here! You can’t speak like this when your kids arrive! meanwhile I was completely unaware that I had said anything offensive. To begin with, I was unsure if I was being wound up or if I really did use profanities as punctuation until one day it was noticed by a senior member of staff. I knew then that it was not a wind up and I was embarrassed and honestly a little perplexed to learn that everyone else seemed to hear words coming out of my mouth that I was not aware of. I have since become very conscious of the way that I speak and the words that I use, especially around non-Scots. Since arriving I have been told by English classmates that I become ‘more Scottish’ with a drink.
The issue of my accent, however, has never been more prominent than since arriving in France. My first grown-up task after entering the country was to move into my accommodation. Upon arrival at the accommodation office I initiated the conversation with the receptionist in French, she then, I believe in an effort to make both our lives easier, replied in English, then so did I. At this point she asked “what language do you speak?” and when I told her I was speaking English she literally threw her hands in the air and exclaimed “well I don’t know what you’re saying.” And that was that. I shut up and she talked at me in English for the remainder of the exchange.
Not being understood in French can be demoralising enough, but to be told that your English is incomprehensible is an added blow. So far, a month into class, I can competently communicate with the French in exactly zero languages.