Sunday Musings: Speaking French
Sunday Musings: Speaking French
It’s funny how the mind wanders! I was trawling through an old Facebook album – of my time in Grenoble, France – looking for a particular photo when I came across a few images that reminded me of the time I realised I could speak French after all!
I should clarify, I can’t really speak French as such. I have a very basic knowledge of the language from five years of learning it in High School back in the 90’s and up until the time I arrived into France in 2011 I have never needed to use it. I’d never set foot in France!
I was pretty good at French at school, swotty good if you must know. It was my favourite subject and I kind of excelled at it. But I absolutely hated speaking it.
Oh the shame, the embarrassment – rosy flushed cheeks, attempting a French accent with a heavy dose of Brummy.
I left school and the French was dropped. Life happened and it required no French whatsoever.
Fast forward to October 2011 and I’m gliding through the French countryside on the TGV, having successfully negotiated the Paris Metro at rush hour switching from the Eurostar at Gard Du Nord to Gare De Lyon.
Excitement was bubbling in me, I was adventuring in a foreign land by myself, heading to Grenoble to housesit/catsit for a friend.
I was regretting not refreshing my French though, I was going to be alone in a city for two weeks and there was a fairly high chance I was going to need to use it!
I’d grabbed one of Katie’s shopping bags: a Sea Shepherd canvas tote. When I began to pack the goods into it at the checkout the handsome cashier said something in French that I understood to be some comment or recognition of the Sea Shepherd bag.
I freaked! Oh god, don’t make me speak French. I mumbled something about not understanding and ran!
Without giving myself time to think about what he’d said, I’d automatically told myself that I wouldn’t understand or respond.
How stupid! I walked back to the apartment feeling throughly ridiculous. I could definitely have tried to answer him, he seemed nice and friendly. He might even have been able to speak English!
A few days passed and I explored this gorgeous French city, falling rather in love with it, ticking off the top picks on Trip Advisor.
One of my wanders took me into the Musee-Bibliotheque, a beautiful old library that is now an exhibition space. The exhibition was a photographic exhibit highlighting the plight of the homeless in the region. The images were printed onto the inside of cardboard boxes and it was very cleverly done.
While I was looking at the photographs and at the same time admiring the lovely building an older lady came over and started talking to me, in French of course.
She commented on one of the photographs, I recognised it to be Grenoble and realised that I could understand what she was saying about it.
The conversation developed to another photo, another town, another poor homeless man. I nodded and agreed with her in French.
The lady then began to talk about the library, she told me she used to come here as a young girl. It was a magical place, endless rows of books that towered over her. In the glass cabinets were special books that she loved to gaze at.
She found the library sad now, the books are gone – the shelves are now decorated with a trompe l’oeil effect of books – but it’s good that the space is still used and that she can still come here.
Yes, I got all of that from her French!
I understood about 70% of everything she was saying, it was amazing. It was because it was in context, there was visuals to match the vocabulary but isn’t that the case with most basic conversation anyway?
After this my confidence with my high school French soared, I chatted with women in the queue at the supermarket, responded to compliments on the street – merci beaucoup monsieur, ah trois bisous! – and ordered tea in cafes.
It is incredible what you can find stashed away in the back of your brain just waiting for a reason to need it! It turns out I have rather a lot of French back there, the grammar is all but forgotten but there is vocab.
Once I’d shook off that teenage peer-pressure embarrassment that I associated with French it became so much easier and natural to speak it.
This is my target for learning Finnish, I want to be at the level that I am with French. When I think about where I want to be in Finnish it is this time I spent in Grenoble, chattering away to people in French.
I have some way to go to get to that stage yet but I remember how awesome it felt to be able to understand and be understood, and that is very encouraging!
Just over a year ago I was talking to an older Brazilian woman in a hostel in Antwerp, she’d been learning English and while she was still at a basic level she was excited about learning it.
She said that being able to understand another language is like being given the keys to a whole new world.
I often think about this, she is so right. Learning a language reveals so much about another culture that would otherwise be hidden from you.
Taking up Finnish has reminded me so much of why I loved learning French in the first place, and it has taken me half of my life to rediscover that I am a bit of a language geek!
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Do you have a moment where you’ve realised you can speak a language?