I had two short but amazing experiences in Paris that started me on my French language-learning journey. I loved the city, food and culture and wanted to go back for a longer stay to see what else France had to offer if I could explore it more on my own. But before I could explore more I had to learn French.
I learned about the Alliance Française from internet searches and other students in my community college French class. The Alliance Française was offering evening classes twice a week and was recommended for language tests by the Teaching Assistants Program in France. Finding out about TAPIF recommendation was what pushed me to start finally taking French classes.
Taking classes twice a week at the Alliance Française
was the best option for me to get into the language. I took classes continually-or as consistently as I could- for a year and a half. Unfortunately, sometimes there weren’t enough people signed up for the next class and it would be canceled. However, in these times I could take the private lessons offered,
which were a great way for me to continue practicing as well as spend time with Anie’s adorable poodle puppy, Gigi.
Learning French at the Alliance Française gave me a foundation I needed when I arrived in France to do TAPIF,as well as providing me with generous help and recommendation letters from my wonderful Alliance Française teachers. Volunteering with the four year olds on Saturday mornings also strengthened my base and gave me an idea of the difficulties of having a small class of children, and it also helped me learn a little more French through songs and simple commands. Even with a great foundation, I found that speaking French in France could be very different than learning in a classroom. Being immersed in a language caused my skills to surge rapidly, largely because I had no other choice.
The worst communication problem I have had in France was when I was moving from one apartment in town to another and I had to cancel my electricity bill. Despite explaining to multiple people the date when I was moving out (not for another week) they still canceled my contract that day. I tried to explain again that I still needed electricity for the rest of the week but all that I could understand from the man helping me was him saying “this is no more” in French. So I asked if, when I went back to my apartment, the lights would work. He told me “don’t worry.” I was worried anyway. Luckily my electricity continued until I moved out, but that was a tense and terrifying week where I thought the lights and internet and
heat would cut out at any minute. I have not had too many moments that were this serious, but these misunderstandings have happened many other times.
Sometimes when I worry about my language abilities I remember that people who speak the same language also have miscommunications and misunderstandings or say the wrong thing, which makes me feel better about making mistakes in French. Luckily I haven’t had any serious encounters or mishaps with the language. Instead I have been able to use my French knowledge to pick up on things I may otherwise not have been able to know.
Prior to learning French, I took Spanish for 7 years in school, so learning the similarities and differences between Spanish, French and English was fun in class, but became crucial in France. I noticed a difference when traveling to other parts of Europe. Spanish in Spain is different, but close enough to the Mexican Spanish I learned in school, while Catalan is like a stranger masquerading as a friendly acquaintance. Dutch and German were once so foreign and confusing they might as well have been using the Cyrillic alphabet. After learning French, I found that all of these languages were sprinkled with tiny clues that I could finally see to get one step closer to a translation and make sense of a sign or even something small like the name of a restaurant. Having another key in the Latin-based language puzzle and, sometimes, Germanic languages has felt rewarding, but so has the fact that I now feel like the travel possibilities for me have opened up in a new way.
While traveling to these different parts of Europe, I was often with a friend I made in this program who is from Spain. It was a new but exciting challenge to travel to different parts of Spain and then Amsterdam with him because our common language is French. So in Spain he would translate for me, and in Amsterdam I had to figure out how to translate for him. I also realized that with three languages between us, the travel possibilities were far reaching. Recently some friends and I went to Andorra.We were in a place that speaks Catalan and between us we had a pretty strong, but not fluent knowledge of Spanish and my own knowledge of French. At one café we went to, a woman spoke to us in French and I was able to order for us all.While asking about hiking at the tourist office, the woman working there kept adding French words and expressions into her speech. In these rare and random moments, I felt like I was in on a secret.
It was thrilling to be able to have another way to communicate with someone, and that is truly my favorite part of having learned a new language. Even when I’m travelling alone, I still feel that I have more opportunities than I had before.
I hope to continue using French in the future,though I don’t yet know what form it will end up taking in my life. It was hard work learning the nuances in pronunciation (French R’s are still difficult), figuring out how to phrase questions, remembering conjugations, and having to rely only on my memory of how a certain phrase sounds so that I could know the proper grammar of a sentence. The easier part was that many words could sound similar, so speaking gives me more leeway, but writing is still a challenge. Text messages take about five minutes for me to craft even a simple response. After this experience in France I hope to continue finding ways to speak French with others so that I don’t lose this ability. I am glad the Alliance Française has many different classes, events, and opportunities to practice and I plan to take advantage of those options in the future.