To learn or not to learn

22 Jun

A little help from my friends Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerSpeaking and learning French has not been a priority for me since I arrived.  At the start, I did a quick calculation between time-required and pain likely to be experienced learning the language versus having a nice time and not learning. It clearly showed that not learning and focusing on having fun was the way to go.

Everyone knows French people don’t like it when you get their language wrong. You try, they give you a nasty look and then reply in testy English.  So why go through the hassle?

I was not going to get far in 5 months with my pathetic language skills and enough people speak English for me to get by. I’ve communicated with sign language and a smile all over the world. I was sure I could connect even in notoriously grumpy France.  And really, how much French do you need to know to get a real bang out of seeing the Eiffel Tower, eating a macaroon or enjoying the pop of a champagne cork?

However, I am getting pressure from all sides to change my mind. First, everyone expects me to want to try.  Friends at home all seemed to think that learning the language was one of the top benefits of my trip. “What a great opportunity to learn French,” they said enthusiastically. In France, my landlady, expats I meet, the woman at the cheese counter, all think they are being encouraging when they ask, “How’s your French coming along?”

“It’s not,” I think to myself, as I point to the cheese I want behind the glass and say, “S’il vous plaît.”

The second pressure is me.  My default mode is to talk to anyone, about anything, at anytime. I am programmed to need to share. However, even small pleasantries with the woman at the bakery or the man at the fruit and vegetable store are denied to me. This is partly because I don’t know the words or phrases.  But the reality is that the biggest obstacle is my fear to get it wrong. I am terrified of the face that says, “You stupid American, when you speak it’s like you are spitting on my baguette.”

As a result, despite all genetic programming to the contrary, I’ve effectively taken a vow of silence.  A shop assistant will ask, “Can I help you find something?” and I stand there silent, like a deer caught in headlights, with a stupid look on my face.  Sometimes I can utter a weak, ‘I don’t understand French’ but most of the time I just shake my head, close my lips tightly and make for the door.

To make matters worse, people want to talk to me. Naturally being a talker, my ridiculous tendency to make eye contact and produce a cheesy smile screams that I am up for a chat. Little old ladies stop me on the street, mothers stop me in the grocery store and even children have come up to say something – what they want to share, I have no idea – and I’ve nothing to say to them.  I must look rude, stupid or both.

Finally, and the most compelling pressure to learn French is the fact that French people are actually really nice.  Yes, it’s true. At no point since I’ve been here has anyone been mean to me about not speaking French. At no point has anyone been mean to me or expressed displeasure at me attempting to speak French. In fact, the French people I’ve met have gone out of their way to make it easy for me and to make my stay in France better. Sure, people have been initially bemused by my “I don’t speak” routine.  However, they usually look at my shoes (the best test for country of origin), figure out the situation and try to help.

This week I started the language tapes. Everyone knows the best plans are flexible.

**You can help me and others learn French!  Please post your favorite French phrases.

7 Responses to “To learn or not to learn”

  1. Anne Flueckiger at 2:14 pm #

    good luck with that! I was there for 2 weeks and couldn’t pronounce things, which was frustrating.

  2. Dawn at 3:31 pm #

    Go for it Jennifer – the thought of you not being able to speak to people is like going against a fundamental law of nature!!!

  3. Sandra Daly at 11:31 am #

    Hi Jennifer

    A great read for a Sunday morning! A few words of French come back to mind mind from the ’50’s’ when I was learning the language for 3 years at High School. I would be hard pressed to to remember much of it now. Bon chance with the tapes! with love Sandra and John

    • Jennifer Flueckiger at 12:38 pm #

      Hi Dalys!
      Great to hear from you! Glad you enjoyed the post. Please send a fav French phrase. I am collating them from here, facebook and twitter and will post them. Hope you are both well!! x

  4. parisbreakfast at 3:25 pm #

    I reccommend getting Fr films with eng subtitles and watching them over & over..
    Too bad you can’t access Netflix in Paris…
    I used to find Fr TV programs in English with Fr subtitles were helpful and there are US movies as well.
    You’d be surpized how helpful that can be.
    I learned a lot from BD – the adult comic books as well as the kids comic books sold at most newstands.
    Any ‘Replay’ shop at any train station will let you look them over at yr leisure.
    It might seem like too much bother, but they helped me more than formal classes…
    Also if you can bear Fr pop music, NRP online is good to get conversation
    Bon chance

    • Jennifer Flueckiger at 3:47 pm #

      Thanks for these great tips! I find the tapes a bit formal. Listening to popular culture is always the best way to understand how people really speak. Thanks for wishing me luck, I’m going to need it! 🙂


  1. With a little help from my friends … « theaccidentalparisienne -

    […] response to my post last week To learn or not to learn, some friends on Facebook volunteered a few of their favourite French phrases. Please let me know […]

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