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I’m standing in the street, alone in a foreign country I began to call my home.
This woman is pointing her finger around, walking up and down the footpath but the only word I can understand from her is “diagonal”. Then she takes me back where I came from, we turn right, march past the flower shop and finally I see it.
The sign for the metro station framed between the trees. This was my first cry for help in France, where I knew not a single phrase in their beautiful and unnecessarily complex language.
In my first few weeks and months, so much of my communication was exchanged for smiles and eye contact that indiscreetly said “I’m nice are you nice? Please help me I don’t understand you I’m sorry but I don’t know how to speak to you”.
I learned a phrase or two in French from my Duolingo phase years ago, which made me feel like a hot baguette who had the illusion of being frenchier and fancier, but boy, did real life in France show me how bad I really was.
I was so bad that when I walked into a store, I would blurt merci to greet the storeperson and bonjour as I walked on out. Out and away from my pride.
I have never been able to find the right moments to say what I had learned on the Duolingo app. La femme mange une pomme! Je veux mon repas! Or how about baleine? Or requin? I also knew singe, which means monkey and if you put that with sale, you can say sale sange! Which means dirty monkey! I knew a lot of animals.
Pretty much the only scenario I imagine where you could use these phrases was if you were trapped in a jail that was inside a zoo, but you were not having a good time with your inmates and your jail guards were abusing your prisoner rights.
So after a month or two of settling in, I found myself a French tutor. She had pretty mascara eyes and wore a blue sweater the first time we met. She was kind and patient with me. She did not believe in having internet on her phone, which made it difficult sometimes to find each other when we had a meeting.
She taught me some key principles for learning French and I have carried these throughout my learning journey.
You have to try to talk to people as much as you can, in different settings, even when you’re self-conscious of your skills. So the first goal is to develop the confidence to interact with people in French and practice your learnings in public. I tried my best to do this where I could.
When speaking with people at the beginning, it’s not important to understand every single word. What’s important is to try and grasp the context of the conversation.
I persisted, even though every day felt like I was trying to interpret some very fancy, nasal congested ducks who could either be asking for my opinions on quantum theory computing or how best to achieve Trump’s haircut, I wouldn’t have a clue and my response would remain the same – omelette au fromage, oui oui.
Honestly, in the span of this year, I don’t know how I came to understand more and more. It’s almost like it happened by sorcery. The trajectory French comprehension from beginner to where I am now appears to look like this:
Two months of lessons had elapsed and I felt like I was making progress with Blue Sweater. She promised to take me exploring together in the city of Paris, simultaneously observing points of cultural interest which I could learn. I imagined frolicking in Bastille where so many riots happened, meeting young people in art museums and dancing some nights away at music concerts together.
I thought we were going to be friends.
On our last lesson before I returned to Oz, I read aloud the first page of the story of Dionysus and the Cyclops. When I finally returned to Paris with visa in hand, Blue Sweater was nowhere to be found and was uncontactable via any means. I knew she was still alive, because she had changed her Facebook profile picture, but that was it for us.
I’ve tried to think of reasons why but to no avail. Maybe the scheduling issues were becoming too severe. Was I a bad student because I kept forgetting things and she was sick of re-teaching me the same things? Maybe she was just involved in a new job. I’ll never know.
Pushing aside those dark feelings of being lost and abandoned as a child in a giant shopping centre, I set off on course again to find another solution.
It's been a year since then and I’ve been progressing with my French with tutors online.
Learning French has definitely had its ups and downs.
The struggle has been real.
But this year, FINALLY. Friends and family have commented on how I’ve improved my French. I can actually make conversation with people who speak zero English and those have been my proudest moments.
I still make mistakes and once in a while I’ll say a word wrongly and make a random accidental sexual reference.
What a beautiful language.
It feels so liberating to walk into stores and speak to the sales assistants without them switching to English, and that to me is the marker of having reached elementary proficiency. Take my advice first hand: if you persevere, you will make it!
Stand-up comedian and Youtuber Sebastian Marx does an excellent job at demonstrating what learning the French language feels like to an Anglophone. If you relate to this experience, I encourage you to share your story in the comments below.