April 16, 2024

The Beauty of Struggling with the French Language.

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Whenever I run into French friends, they get excited and start to speak to me in French.

I get embarrassed each time and shamefully admit that I have been living in France for a over a year now and I still haven’t been able to pick up the language. So really sorry, but we have to continue in English.

I am even more ashamed to confess how envious I am when I see others advancing faster than I am. Hats off to them for that though (or, as they say in French, “chapeau”)! For me, learning French is one of the hardest things I ever started.

I could come up with excuses to save my ass, like I mainly spend time with English speakers, which is true but not always.

Quite often, I find myself being the only non-French speaker on my team, feeling left out from every discussion around the dining table while the others are laughing around me. I am multilingual, speaking four languages already (all intermediate or higher level), and I even excelled in Latin at school. I always thought of myself as someone who’s a good language learner, until I came to France. My once-was excitement of learning a new language quickly turned into agony.

My frustration has gotten aggravated from simple life situations, as my ineptitude greets me at every corner—like paying at the cash desk in the grocery store, when I tell to the cashier in French that I’d like to pay by card and they look at my boyfriend with a question mark in their eyes. It feels so discouraging especially after believing that I really got this one sentence right.

There are things I already gave up, like to learn to properly pronounce their letter “R” or to get my head around their unkind spelling and why they don’t pronounce at least half the letters of a word, but I won’t give up and continue to muddle along and try to improve to be able to speak (at least a bit of) French.

On the contrary to other languages, I struggle with French across all the language’s facets—oral, auditory, reading, and beyond. The only way I could pick up some sentences was memorizing them like a poem, and that’s not the way to master any language. I struggle with reading and writing the most—even though French uses the same base of the Roman alphabet as my native language, and I had no problems learning the Korean alphabet.

What I noticed is (and some other French learners I talked to said the same), I can’t pick the language up because I don’t find the logic in it (yet). Every language I’ve learned so far started out as difficult, but at one point I had an “a-ha” moment where it just clicked; I found the logic and it all made sense and from that point it was rolling easy. But with French, whenever I get excited because finally I found something I can make sense of, I realize it’s not so and there are hundreds of exceptions or other rules that mess the logic up and I can’t follow it anymore.

The urging sense to learn French just to be included has grown stronger every time I’ve listened to my boyfriend and our colleagues talking in their native language in the car while we commute. And to be frank, I really love these “listening practices” not just because it helps me learn, but it also gets me an insight into a different part of my partner’s personality.

Though I have minor success experiences like understanding more of what people talk about around me, and noticing tiny differences between how they pronounce certain words (they are from different sides of the country), and more often when the work is explained in French I understand it completely, every time I feel like I could jump into the conversation, I feel incapable. My limited abilities and constant errors in French make me so self-conscious that I just reach for the familiarity and comfort of English.

But it’s all my fault, since this time I simply refuse to learn this language the traditional way. Yes, I have apps on my phone to learn grammar and listen to lessons on Spotify, but that’s it. Probably learning the other languages at school also helped to advance in them faster, but it’s not the way I’ve gone down (for now; I keep the option open to sign up to a month-long intense course in a romantic small town, like Montpellier for the future, in case the struggle takes the next level).

I am here to work not to study, so I don’t sit down for at least an hour a day to focus on French intensely because I have so many more things to do. I did not sign up to any class and didn’t hire a teacher, didn’t even invest in a French text book. I am struggling with it on my own in some stolen minutes of my days (TMI, usually on the toilet) and using the assistance of my native speaker boyfriend and colleagues. (And I am truly grateful for all of them for their efforts and patience with me!)

Acquiring French is more than conjugations and ordering croissants in the boulangerie; choosing this as my fifth language helped me realize that rather than resisting and being harsh on myself, I need to learn another thing: embracing my status as a beginner.

Last time I learned a language was around age 20, at university. Now I’m 33 and I have a completely different view on learning a language. It stopped being simply learning a language and memorizing rules and vocabulary and became so much more. I see a whole complex beauty here. A more intimate relation due to my approach to master this language in real-life situations and from natives, instead of being a bookworm of textbooks and attending cold classrooms to practice unrealistic scenarios. It also took me a step closer to understanding other people’s hearts, culture, history, and a new perspective of the entire world. In abstract, this is way easier than when I was trying to ask the guy in the fromagerie for a specific kind of cheese called “tomme” that I was hunting for a recipe.

My journey of learning this language is non-linear, messy, and feels more like an under-planned hike in the wilderness with no proper equipment, littered with constant errors, obstacles, and mistakes. But it’s exciting and feels more like “me.” It’s something that has become important in my life since I crossed my third X—to do things my own way, even if they aren’t easy.

But I still try, and each time a native French appreciates my efforts to speak their tongue, it sparks some hope in me toward the possibilities of French language and toward a different future.


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