My French language journey began in 1990 with a rather frightening school-teacher named Mr Curtis. This so-called distributer of knowledge was a man not easily forgotten. He had eyebrows like the jaws of death. His eyes were bullets that bore holes into your skull, through which he could see the entire contents of your underdeveloped Year 7 brain. When all he could find was lyrics to the Stutter Rap (as opposed to French auxiliary verbs) he not impressed I tell you not impressed at all.
His shoulders hunched forward as he strode the length of the classroom. Up. Swivel. Down. Repeat. He wrote perfect cursive with a stubby piece of chalk on the blackboard. He pressed very hard with that chalk. The scratching sound of every contour of every dot, cross and circumflex filled the otherwise silent classroom. His chalk became stubbier. His duster spewed chalky clouds with every wipe. Scratch. Pause. Swivel. Then he would point that stubby chalk towards one of us shit-scared students and fire some indecipherable question. Then you would see it. A thick fluffy path of chalk-dust tracking from the dark hairs of his left nostril to the corner of his down-turned mouth. Oh Lordy the pain. Of not laughing. Everything in your body is trying to burst out of itself - tears, snot, snorts - wee. Oh blimey me. NOT laughing is indeed the hardest thing to do in the entire world. Learning French whilst (not) doing so is even harder.
I was a studious little girl at the age of 12 but even I struggled to see the point of learning French. I’d heard of France, the country. That’s about it. My world at that age was only as big as the town I lived in and don’t nobody talk French there. So when the opportunity came to continue those studies I chose not to. Better to choose more useful subjects like drama - and thank goodness I did - because I was way more likely to end up a famous actress on Neighbours than a trailing spouse in Paris. Huh. Sufficed to say I finished school with zero knowledge of French and a reasonable ability to die in a realistic way within a 1 minute window in a scene starting with the phrase “Hey what are you doing?”
All cynicism aside, my dramatic improvisation skills actually come in handy while walking Parisian streets. For example, someone stops to ask for directions (in French). I think I know what they’re saying, not 100% sure, but I think on my feet, point this way and that way. I'm very convincing.
Last year, we only had a few months notice before our move to Paris became definite. As soon as we had confirmation I filled the console of the car with CD’s of French lessons. It was fun. I learned the alphabet, how to count, the days of the week and basic “nice to meet you” conversations. Not a lot beyond that. When we arrived I was very keen to get started with classes. But at first we weren’t sure where we were going to live, we didn’t have any babysitting or childcare, we’d spent all our money at Ikea and everything seemed very expensive. So I got really good at saying, “Pardonez-moi, vous parlez anglais? Je ne comprend pas.” I still use these phrases whenever I hit a brick wall with communication (several times per day).
I eventually started attending some night classes. I enjoyed these but found everyone moved much quicker than me and I soon became lost. I was the only Australian and everyone else was already at least bilingual (woe, I know). Of course my vocabulary improved and I gained some knowledge of sentence structure but there seemed to be a lot of listening and not much talking. I still froze in real life when I was required to speak. I took a break. I did some online learning and have used programs such as Duolingo, Coffee Break French, Babbel and signed up to some fantastic YouTube channels Learn French With Alexa and Comme Une Française Then I started going to a conversation group. This was great because even though I didn’t know much, I could practice what I did know, and add a little bit at a time.
But with only an hour per week improvement was steady but slow. I switched to private lessons (also one hour per week). Now, my conversation remains limited but I muddle through with the patience and encouragement from wonderful tutor Phillippine. I leave my lessons feeling confident, right up until someone speaks to me at the shop or on the street and I have no idea what they’re saying and forget everything I know again.
I have realised that learning a language requires a bit more commitment than a weekly hour and few random you tube videos. Chris and I have been trying to figure out a better way for me to learn French. For the moment, he is too busy at work to study so the communication guru is supposed to be me. I’ve been told that to learn a language you need to study intensively and ideally be immersed. Apparently 3 months will do it! I’ve got a few things going against me here. Whilst living in Paris, one is not immersed. Many Parisians speak excellent English and many others want to practice and will do so at every opportunity. Also, I can’t do intensive anything as I find being a parent and a wife in a foreign country quite intensive enough, TBH. I would need full-time care for Hazel and after-school care for Euan it’s just not my cuppa tea. Euan’s having his own language battles and I don’t want to make it harder than it already is for him. He needs time in his day NOT be stressed and confused.
So our solution?
It’s a compromise.
But a pretty good one.
Chris has a month off work over summer. Exactly ONE of those weeks is mine all mine to do with whatever I like. And I choose to do an intensive week of French immersion! In Antibes! Alone! Sur la Côte d’Azure! Sans enfants!
Are you excited? I am! But also a bit scared. This week is costing us a fair amount of effort and money. What if I return and my French is no better? What if I die of sadness being away from my family and I'm not there to pick up my darlings when they fall and hurt their chubby little knees? What if I get sunburned from too much delicious soul-purifying sun? What if I have a hangover from too many glasses of rosé and wait for it….don’t have to get up for children demanding their weet-bix?? WHAT IF I LOVE IT A BIT TOO MUCH??
Stay tuned I will definitely keep you posted on this one. Wish me luck.
Where would you go if you had a whole week to do whatever you wanted?? Comment below and don't forget to subscribe to my blog here.