One of my primary motivations in choosing to study abroad in France, as opposed to anywhere else in the world, was to improve my French. Before I came to France, I had studied French for 5.5 years, 4 in high school and 1.5 in college. From those many years of studying the language, I was able to carry out conversations on pretty much any subject with minimal difficulty recalling vocabulary, and I was capable of reading and comprehending relatively simple novels with ease. I could also understand about 80% of what a French person would say in conversation.
So what’s changed?
Before I arrived in France, I had constantly been told that English is so well-known here that French practically isn’t necessary to get around. Well whoever told me that clearly has not had to live with someone who only knows the English words “yes,” “bye” and “stop.” When I got here, I was immediately dropped in the deep end, but my French is so much better for it. Instead of being able to just drop an English word here and there whenever I didn’t know something, I suddenly had to speak all French all the time and look up what I didn’t know. Over the span of four months that gets to be a lot of new vocabulary, resulting in better, more fluent French.
There is also the matter of grammar. While I tend to be able to get away with plenty of grammar mistakes with Katherine, my professors at CIEE, especially MC, fix grammar on the spot. That, too, overtime tends to iron out the kinks in my French. Grammar remains my primary struggle in French. Although, I find myself being able to form sentences with increased ease and, on very few occasions, I don’t even have to think about what I’m saying, the French just comes out and it’s right!
As of right now, I can’t exactly tell what has changed other than these more obvious factors, but it will be interesting to see what will be different when I return to French classes at Hope. I do believe there are other aspects of my French that have improved, though it’s hard to really measure or quantify those qualities of my French. For example, my accent. I’ve been really lucky to have had several great French teachers who all speak the language either as their native tongue or with an incredibly good French accent. From listening to those teachers, I was able to grasp the basic sounds of French so I have been able to speak with a relatively good French accent. Since I’ve been in France, I’d like to believe that my accent got better and more natural-sounding, but I can’t really be the judge of that.
To someone who doesn’t know French as a first language or even at all, I likely sound like a native speaker. However, to the French, I most certainly do not. I remember my first day of class at French university with my professor who is Russian. She speaks perfect French, and I had absolutely no difficulties in understanding her. Yet, soon after she started speaking, she made a comment about her being a foreigner and having an accent. All of the French students in the room nodded their heads. It was completely ridiculous! I couldn’t hear an accent, but to these French students it was clear as day! So no, I don’t sound like a native speaker to the French, but I have been told that I sound like the next best thing: German! I’ve actually had probably three conversations, all with different French people, where I’ve been asked if I was German. I replied “no, I am American,” which is always shocking to them. I asked a man that I met why he thought I was German and he said it was because I spoke French quite well with a good accent. I asked if he’d met many Americans that could, but he said that they generally don’t. Of course, it made me feel good to know that my accent is good, but only time will tell how much it has actually improved. I suspect when I get back to Hope that the French professors will have a thing or two to say about it.
There is also the matter of speed. Generally, I don’t speak very quickly in English so I definitely do not in French. However, the French people seem so driven by talking ridiculously quickly that I had to try to learn to do that as well. Overall, I find that French-speakers speak significantly quicker than English-speakers, but I find that a lot of it is very situational. The situations where I hear people speaking the quickest are on the radio and also in in-class discussion at school. I tend to think this comes from French people’s habit of speaking over one another when they have something to say. I guess they feel it necessary to speak as quickly as possible so as to say everything they want to say and avoid being interrupted. I found that when I spoke in class at French university, the professor and other students were much more respectful. They let me talk without cutting me off because they could tell very clearly that I was foreign, but when a French student spoke there were absolutely no limits. I remember a class discussion I didn’t even try to participate in because the French students were just talking over each other the entire time. There was no way that I would be able to jump right in and say what was on my mind. However, I have found that I am now quicker at organizing my thoughts and being able to speak off the cuff without mentally rehearsing what I’ll say (though sometimes that has ended in a grammatical disaster).
There is also the matter of using the ‘f-word’… fluency. I have never before said that I was fluent in French because I never felt like that accurately described my language ability. My family has been describing me as fluent in French for quite a while now, even though they had scarcely heard me speak it at all. My parents just assumed that, based on how long I’d been learning the language, I was probably coming up on being fluent if I wasn’t already. However, after they came to visit me in France and actually heard me speak French they said that I definitely was. Fluent, to me, meant flawless. Let me be the first one to say, my French is not flawless. But fluent, by definition, does not mean flawless, not even close. To be fluent means simply to be able to write or speak in a language with ease, so, by that definition, I guess I am fluent.
Truthfully, I still tend to stray from using that word because it brings a sort of intimidating expectation with it. If I say that I’m fluent in a second language, there are two responses: 1. That’s really cool! 2. How do you say… Sometimes when people ask me this second question and it’s something that I have no idea how to say, I feel like a complete fraud because I can’t “prove” my fluency to them. But, something that I wish was more evident to people is that being fluent is not the same thing as speaking at a native-level. I know and have accepted the fact that I might never speak French at a native-level, but that doesn’t mean I can’t constantly continue to improve my abilities.
Bottom line: language learning is a long and complicated journey and there is no definite way to determine your progress. But, there are little tests here and there like stopping to give directions to someone or checking out at the grocery store that reassure me that, yes, my French is getting better.
Also, for your entertainment, here’s a list of fun words or phrases that I learned throughout my time here in France:
I just like how it sounds.
Literally translates to “flying deer”.
Dodo: nap; sleep
This is a fun one because it’s actually the little kid way of saying sleep so it’s English equivalent is something like “sleepy time” or “beddy bye” (Katherine actually uses this one all the time).
Yaourter: to make up words when singing
I need to explain this one. So there is this show on French TV where people compete by singing songs with difficult lyrics and they have to try to remember them, but if they mess up then they lose (it’s weird but stick with me). So when the singers don’t know the words they will yaourter. I would also like to mention that the literal translation of this verb is “to yogurt”.
I hear this word all the time, especially in reference to the 10th, 11th, and 20th arrondissements. I will also say that a hipster in France is usually a millennial with a job so bobo-style is more high-end, but not bourgeois.
Katherine frequently calls me “mon petit chou” which can literally translate to “my little cabbage” but it is generally a term of endearment.
Katherine also uses this one as a term of endearment. She’ll say “ma cocotte,” but it literally translates to “my chicken”.