French for the Franglophone
In this brief passage, I will tell you some of my experiences, then elaborate on some important factors from my point of view, then summarise some points on which you might like to concentrate.
When is the best time to learn French?
When I was a schoolboy in the late sixties, I did take French for O level, and achieved a pass, but that was the end of it, at least for about 20 years.
During my career, I was given the opportunity take a French conversation class, based on meeting people and asking questions, but not strictly in an informal way, as part of the vocabulary was based around policing. I found it quite fun, unlike the crusty old lessons at school. A good thing about it was that la femme prof, was French, and due to my propensity to mimic, I found it easy to take up a French accent. I came away with a "French as a foreign language" certificate AAABB.
This was a key to a career move, and a 5 year liaison with French colleagues, in Le Havre, Cherbourg, Caen and St. Malo.
I spent a week in the Ecole de la Police Nationale in St. Malo, where everything was in French.
With a few years break, and retirement plans to Scotland, languages apart from a Spanish course, were on a back burner.
It wasn't until 2007, and our permanent move to France, that I started to converse in French again. I had retained a great deal, but found that abstinence had reduced the fluency level somewhat. But throwing myself into the comité d'animation in our village, I crossed a threshold and became more fluent. I wouldn't say that I am completely fluent yet, as colloquial expressions sometimes elude me. Some of the committee meetings break down into so much cross talk, that to follow a line of conversation becomes taxing. However the more of these meetings I attended the more confident I have become, and have been able to participate more.
Where is this leading?
There are a number of thresholds in every learning experience, which are relative to capacity and ability, and latterly the willingness.
When I learned the Morse code for example (no accents here of course), the code is first learned as individual symbols. The speed of the transmission of the codes is then increased, until there is a saturation point, and anything sent above a certain speed becomes garbled, until that is, the sounds become patterns of words rather than individual letters. Then it becomes another language, so much so that during the Second World War, individual operators could be identified by the way they transmitted the coded messages.
So let me come back to French. We have a number of components, just like Morse code; the vowel sounds, the rules of consonants, liaison between words, grammar, and finally vocabulary.
Many of us rely so much on the vocabulary and the grammar that we saturate, and go to pieces, rather than concentrate on the formation of the sounds and the rules. I have noticed that many complaints about French lessons are about differing levels of experience within a class, and the feeling of being left behind, by those with more apparent experience. I expect there is also a level of embarrassment, when speaking "franglais", but at least there's a start.
Where do we go from here?
Like any actor on stage it is almost essential to feel the part, and think in French. At the risk of being thought of as mental, I go about all the time, making phrases in my head of what I am doing at the time, whether it is feeding the rabbit, "nourir le lapin", washing the car "faire laver la bagnole", emptying the barn, "vider la grange", digging a hole, "creuser un trou", rather than thinking of individual words. Sometime I come across an unknown word, so I look it up and build it into a phrase, and it sticks. By making these blocks bigger, they form more useful constructs, and the dots and dashes of vocabulary become the paragraphs of conversation.
However it is very important to concentrate on the sounds, the “ai”, "eu", "en", "on", and "in" and so on, as these can make the difference. The diphthongs in English rarely occur in French. For example, when we say "Thursday", the diphthong at the end of the word is in fact two sounds, the "a" and the "y". "Thurs-da-y". We don't think about it but it exists. That’s our rule. In French there are rules. Topically "Meilleurs Voeux" is a phrase that can fox us Anglophones. Applying French rules "Mé-yer Veu" is the result.
By thinking of these sounds and applying them, we can begin to hide the Anglophone and emphasise the Francophone more.
I am not over simplifying the experience, as there is more to it than that, but it's a beginning.
When you begin to dream in French, then the deed is done, and you can call yourself bi-lingual, if not fluent.
If you fear that you have reached a peak in your learning, I would say to you, No! You have merely reached a plateau in your learning experience, and you need to find the next hill to climb, or threshold to cross. All that remains to do is to make a decision on what the next step is. Remember though, not making a decision is making a decision to not to do it. Rather than sit and watch UK TV, turn on the radio for an hour and listen to France Bleu Creuse or something similar, and listen to the conversation. I mean really listen, and pick out the phrases. It doesn’t matter that you are unsure of what they mean. If there is time repeat them to yourself. If you can, write them down as they sound, and repeat them to a French speaker with whom you can converse, and ask them what it means by repeating it back to them, and ask them to explain in simple words you can understand. It will be one more phrase for your conversation.
Instead of forming an ex-pat group, join in with your local association, even if to help lay tables or peel vegetables for the meal, like we did. We found no official welcome, we had to go out and earn it. Was it difficult? Yes it was. Do we regret it? Most definitely not for as a result of our initial contacts, I was invited onto a team for the local elections, and despite being on the losing side, we made many friends, and now are well known in the village.