If you are an avid À La Prochaine reader, then you might have ascertained that I started this blog for a variety of reasons. Every week it seems I list a new one. Today, I’m adding yet another: People. Even with strong introverted tendencies, one of my greatest joys is discussing French culture one-on-one with someone else who appreciates it as much as I do. As such, I’m starting a new monthly concept over here where I’ll pick the brains of my favorite expatriates (expats). What is an expatriate, you ask? Expats are people who live outside of their native countries. If you are a literary fanatic, then you might recognize one of the most infamous expats, writer Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Paris during the roaring 1920’s.
Nearly a century later, and it’s time we learn about more notable expats. That brings me to one of my newfound favorites, Diane, author of the blog Oui in France. A New Jersey native, Diane’s perspective is particularly fascinating as she takes readers on her personal journey of learning the French language while living in France. With frequent cameos from her French husband, Tom, and her adorable Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Dagny, Diane delights her readers with the truths of living abroad and assimilation into a different culture. As you’ll soon read, her refreshing honesty abandons the hackneyed Pinterest-sparkly narrative of life in France.
Without further hesitation, please welcome Diane to À La Prochaine:
1. What’s your history with the French language? Did it begin with your husband, or did you have prior experience?
First, thanks so much for taking the time to interview me, Jess. What a nice surprise! 😉 OK, so about the question. In high school, I took French but like most teens, we didn’t take language class too seriously. We were often kind of embarrassed to try to speak with an authentic French accents because the French sounds I guess were kind of weird sounding to our young American ears. So not only did we sound terrible pronunciation wise, but no one took the class too seriously. We’d do the grammar exercises and everything, but could we hold down a real convo with a French person? Absolutely not.
Then in college, my major only required one semester of a foreign language and guess what I picked? Nope, not French! I studied Irish, as in Modern Gaelic. Why? It sounded interesting, but the 20-year-old Diane was not thinking, “Be practical.” I guess that’s because I had no interest really in France at that point. I had visited France in between my Junior and Senior years of high school and didn’t love it. It was my first time abroad and even though we visited for just a week, it just seemed so foreign. Drunk guys spit on our student group. I just didn’t get the best first impression.
So after college, flash forward to when I was working in NYC and started to wonder what else was out there. I wasn’t super happy with my job so I tried to really enjoy my leisure time when I wasn’t working. I started taking classes once/week at Alliance Francaise to brush up on my high school skills and it was fun. That little bug inside me kept pushing me to see if maybe I wanted to live abroad for a bit. I just didn’t want to spend 20+ years at a desk job and wake up older and tied down with a mortgage and other responsibilities that keep you from just going for it. Living with regret scared me. One of the ideas I visited was to apply to teach English in France (TAPIF). I figured I had nothing to lose and crazily enough I was accepted. At that point I was at the required intermediate level thanks to my classes and off to France I went for a 7-month contract!
2. Is there an aspect to learning French that has been particularly challenging to surmount?
France is not an easy language and anyone who has studied it will tell you that. There are so many challenging aspects. I think it’s relatively achievable to get to a conversationally fluent level but to speak without mistakes and always get the gender of a noun right and have a big vocabulary and know all the tenses and conjugations? Could take several lifetimes.
I wrote about this on my blog, but I think the hardest part for me was oral comprehension of spoken French once I was face-to-face with native French speakers. Classroom learning — despite having an amazing teacher — can’t prepare you for background noise, a quick convo with 3 or 4 voices at the dinner table, slang and just the way the words run together. It took a lot of time for me to figure out where one word would end and another would start. I go into more depth on this on the blog. For anyone who needs to speak to French people out of necessity (work, move to a French-speaking country, etc.), it’s absolutely essential that you spend most of your time working on comprehension.
3. You’ve recently written about the importance and benefits of being corrected as you learn and communicate with native French speakers. Was this a concept you’ve always embraced, or was there a particular experience that made you realize that corrections are a fundamental part of learning a language?
Oooh good question. I’ve always embraced it. I tell people to correct me because it’s the only way I’ll learn. I’m a hardass like that. Not the pharmacist or a random person in line at the supermarket, but anyone I have regular contact with, I ask them to correct me. Do they do it? Not really. My husband is the exception and he does so without fail and I appreciate that. I think sometimes people aren’t used to speaking to foreigners (especially out where I live) so they’re not sure how to do it and honestly if I get my point across clearly, even if I make mistakes, they don’t see a need to correct me. Sometimes I force them by saying something two ways and kind of pause and look frustrated waiting for them to tell me the right choice. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. If there’s a grammar issue that I know I messed up (happens often), I just record a voice memo on my phone to ask my husband Tom later. That way he can explain the correct answer and why in private.
4. Beets and hugs- you’ve regaled your readers with lighthearted cultural mishaps with your in-laws. What was it like to integrate into a French family? How did you initially overcome the language barrier?
I think that’s something I’ll always be working on little by little. Integration is a funny concept because what does it really mean? Can I speak to my French family? Sure. Can I enjoy a meal with them and take part in activities and trips with them like I would my own family? Sure. But do I get the cultural references and speak with ease? Not exactly. I think my in-laws love me for who I am, flaws and all, and because I love their son. I live about 40 minutes from my in-laws and we get together often so I’ve happily gotten to know them quite well over the past 5 years (anniversary is Aug 12 ;-)). Luckily Tom has a small family so it wasn’t too overwhelming but if he had tons of siblings and cousins and everything, maybe I’d be singing a different tune.
About the language barrier, it’s just taking things one day at a time and doing your best. My French has gotten better over the years but still it’s hard to talk about complicated emotional things and not always being as precise in your foreign tongue as you’d like.
5. What advice would you give to young adults who want to learn French? In your opinion, should they be doing anything more specific earlier in their studies that is outside of the textbook?
Yes, like I said above, focus on oral comprehension above all else. Grammar, spelling, and reading are great but if you can’t understand someone, what’s the point? I’d also say to take it easy on yourself. I’m extremely hard on myself and way more forgiving with others, so I’ll beat myself up over a bad exchange with someone or a day full of convos that leave me feeling dumb or like the elephant in the room. Take advantage of the internet too. So many French people want to practice their English so it’s easy these days to find a language partner online.
6. Do you have a favorite French word or phrase?
There are so many fun words and phrases that make me giggle. The words are so fun to say! (when they aren’t making me cry due to difficult pronunciation) Like impec, which is short for impeccable. If you ask someone how they are, sometimes you hear impec, like great. In English impeccable sounds so formal and odd but in French it’s great.
Some other fun words. Not that I use them that often but sound interesting to my American ear: Ratatouille, rassasier, quincaillerie, papillon, quotidien. Best phrase to fake French is to say “C’est vrai que…” Used ALL the time!
7. With one parent an English speaker, and the other French, does that mean Dagny is bilingual?
But of course! Haha, well in all seriousness, her language is FOOD. If you have a piece of ham in your hand, she’ll regale you with her tricks. Sit, down, roll over, paw, and all in rapid succession. She knows her commands in English but like I said, with food in your hand she’ll show you everything she’s got!
8. Do you keep personal goals for fluency? When do you feel like you’ll be able to confidently declare yourself as fluent?
That’s a hard question. Do I have personal goals? Not really. I guess my goal was to be able to get by in pretty much any situation and that’s where I’m at now. I know having an all or nothing approach for me personally will be detrimental so if I say “speak without messing up gender for a week straight” or “lose my accent” will just stress me out.
An outsider observing me might say I appear fluent and in some respects I am, but is French as natural for me as English? No way. I’ll search for words or wonder how to phrase something. I’ll guess on conjugations sometimes. So fluent, OK, maybe I’m there or close to it but truly bilingual? Ask me again in 20 years. 😉 I wrote a little more on the topic of fluency here.
9. Do you have any final thoughts on learning French that you’d like to share?
Let’s see. I think I have to say to give yourself time. Be patient, and be persistent. If something is too complicated or confusing one day, move on to something else. Choose an exercise that is interesting like a fun YouTube video and ditch the grammar textbook for an afternoon. And don’t let anyone make you feel “less than.” Your accent is part of who you are. It’s cool. Your mistakes are not the end of the world. You will get better, so just keep at it!
Voila! Diane, vous êtes impec!
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À La Prochaine!