Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Speaking French

I've been noticing something recently that bothers me:  I have many friends who want to go to France, as I'm doing, but who are afraid.  They don't know the language, they might get lost, lonely, have their pockets picked, etc., etc.  Well, I share the fears above, all except for one:  I have worked on learning the language for years -- and for the most part, I've done it with no formal instruction.  And I'm not bragging here; I'm telling you that it can be done!  (Well, I guess I'm bragging a bit because, by golly, I've worked very hard at learning this language!)

I do admit that over twenty years ago, I lived in Toulouse, France, for nearly two years while I did some graduate studies in neuroscience.  However, when I went there, I had had no French language education at all -- well, except for about three weeks right before I left, which only made matters worse, not better, because those pitiful three little weeks gave me a false confidence that I knew at least something.  But here was the problem when I arrived there all those years ago:  I could ask where is something or other --- BUT when the other person responded, I had absolutely no clue about what they were saying!!  I bought a French language textbook before I went; and after I got there, I studied it every day, every chance I got.  And I got by.  That's all I did for at least the first year; I got by.  And I might add, too, that almost no one that I knew spoke more than just a few words in English, too, so I didn't have that "out."  I found out, too, that hand signals were powerful and that I could live with making a fool of myself, very often!  I got by.

After having been back in the USA for nearly twenty years, except for occasional European visits, I didn't study French at all until just two or three years ago.  Then I decided I was getting old and that I wanted to complete what I had started all those years ago.  But still being stubborn and wanting to do everything my own way, I decided, once again, to go it alone.  So I started reading everything I could in the French language.  That meant, of course, that I had to have a dictionary beside me at all times and that I spent more time studying the dictionary than figuring out what the heck I was reading.  And I'm not talking simple books, either:  To this day, one of my favorite French authors is Emile Zola.  I struggled with his novels, one after another, for many, many months at a time, each one.  Not only did I not know the words, but I couldn't even understand the sentence constructions.  But slowly, v e r y    s l o w l y, things started to fall into place.  Progress was very difficult even to measure for many months at a time.  But then it really began to pick up speed.  Today, I read without a dictionary present -- except for the occasional word I need to know.  I found out, too, that I didn't have to look up every single word, even back when I wasn't understanding much at all, because I could get the gist of the story -- and I could learn many high-use words by context after a while.

More recently, (in the past year), I upped the demands on myself.  I got a TV5Monde, French language, subscription so that I can watch French (nearly) TV every day.  I say "nearly" because much of it is subtitled, and I find that subtitles are counter-productive.  Even before the TV5Monde, I had discovered France Inter radio station online, and I listen to it anytime I'm painting, for instance.  (I especially like the channel "France Culture.")

I'll continue this discussion over the next couple of weeks and hope some of you chime in.  Are you studying French?   How do you study?  Do you have any tricks you can share?  Is not knowing the language of a country you love preventing you from doing something you want to do but are too afraid to do?   (I love the French culture, the food, the language, the people, the land, everything!)

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