An Update: French Progress!

How is your 2019? Ours has been a tricky start – we got thrown a super unpleasant insurance curve ball that we are still trying to resolve to make sure we do not need to completely change our hospital and birth plans. Do send good vibes our way! The most important thing is that the baby is still in great shape and ready to make his or her debut in just a few weeks. 🙊

So finally, an update on our French progress. Remember last year when I had finally gotten into a French class – and it was a total disaster? I was dejected, but fortunately, some of our expat friends were organizing an evening weekly class just a few weeks later that B and I were able to join.

Pardon the most obvious statement in the world: Learning a new language is really hard.

Most Swiss (and really, most Europeans) speak so many languages that you get fooled into mastering just one new one will be a breeze. When we first agreed to come to Switzerland, I was certain I’d scoop French right up. I envisioned telling future American employers that of course I could take that business trip to Paris because I spoke flawless French. On weekends, I would effortlessly impress future dinner party guests with my accent while describing my secret to scrumptious coq au vin alongside a variety of Burgundy wines. 

So, I told myself many lies about how well learning French would go. I had studied Spanish and Latin – they were fellow Romance languages! Plus, Americans naturally know lots of French without realizing it – haven’t you ever understood the back of a shampoo bottle in the shower or sung the opening bars of Beauty & The Beast? I thought by Christmas I’d be popping into my neighborhood boulangerie in a red striped mariner shirt, sensible trousers and flats (in this fantasy I am also 5″10 and rail-thin despite the croissants), chatting with the other regulars like a local, hob-knobbing with the barista about weekend plans.

Instead, in my first months here I lived for the grocery store’s self-checkout lane and when I’d need to have actual human interaction, I’d try to memorize my request on Google Translate before going into a shop or restaurant. When getting to the register, one of three paths were taken:

  • I’d say a) say “Bonjour!” in an accent that made the cashier determine that speaking to me in French would be futile and they would continue the conversation in English
  • b) I’d immediately blush and panic and speak bad Fringlish i.e. “Oh Bonjour – hi! [Uses one finger to point] One medium cafe s’il vous plait!?”
  • c) I would get my request out in French and mentally fist pump- but then I’d crash and burn on the employee’s very basic follow-up question, like “for here or to go?”

So our fall weekly class – it was good. Lots of laughs with friends, and it was a nice sampler to get my feet wet with a language that was and still is, quite literally foreign to me. But a weekly class with a tired evening (and pregnant) brain, was just not enough to make any real traction. In high school fashion, homework was done at the last minute and we attempted to get by with our teacher purely on charm. Oddly enough, B and I felt like actually our Spanish was coming back in full force because if we didn’t know the answer to a question posed by our teacher – we could always pull an old Spanish vocab word from our 10th grade brains and have a decent shot at getting close to the correct answer.

So, after the holidays wrapped and my husband’s busiest work season beginning (meaning zero travel in our future and depressing lonely winter days ahead) I finally had enough time to jump into an intensive class – five days per week from 830-1230pm. I am about to finish the third week and am so pleased.

It’s wonderful to have daily classroom structure, classmates from all over the world (Panama, the United Arab Emirates, Germany and Portugal are all represented), and delightful teachers. It also feels grounding to have known a little bit of French from our prior weekly class so that I’m not starting from zero and have some confidence. Each day I feel myself making progress and making deeper and deeper connections to the material.

Still – it’s hard as hell. French, more than any other language I’ve studied, is definitively based on pronunciation – if you butcher how words are spoken, your meaning is entirely lost. In Spanish, you can “get by” even if your accent is poor (regardless of how well you roll your R’s.) In French, you frequently intentionally mush together words and either leave out letters that are written, or add letters not written, constantly. Well-spoken French really is like a long monologue of run-on sentences with a bunch of z’s and very specific syllable emphasis and intonation. My class spends a decent amount of time each day literally molding our mouths to practice specific syllables.

The French are also very particular about their language, which can be very intimidating for early learners. I’m not entirely sure if they are just being fussy or they are truly confused sometimes – but if you get a pronunciation wrong, they will either pretend to have no idea what you mean, or really will not understand what you are saying. Our friend C once told a colleague she liked the famous cheese raclette, and the person was flummoxed. When she explained the dish in detail, they finally exclaimed- “OH! You like “LA raclette!” Another friend told a babysitter that she was spending the weekend in Morzine (a very closeby ski town in France) and only after she explained more about the area did the sitter exclaim, “OH! You are going to MOOOR-zEEENE.” I feel like in the US we roll with the punches a bit better and might provide guidance to someone learning English, but when we get the point of what the person means, we move things along and don’t initially fake dismay.

Despite how lovely the course has been, I have resigned myself to the fact that I will not leave Switzerland a fluent French speaker as I once dreamed. Fear not, my dear friends, future dinner parties will still be held with many booze options.

But I’ve been reminded that after so many years of school Spanish, I’m still not fluent in that either. True mastery of a language requires years and years of deep study and hours of speaking per day to acquire all of the vocabulary, grammar idiosyncracies, cultural nuances, etc.

However, I have three more weeks, and while I will be happily distracted by the baby very soon – I hope by next Christmas to be conversational – to be able to have brief chats with servers, shopkeepers, ideally participate in “cocktail party chatter” etc. and to read and absorb as much French as I can. As with our travel resolutions, if I put it in the Internet universe and commit to it, hopefully I can follow through!

Most of all, I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to learn something new long after my formal education has concluded – even when I want to curse the language for being so tricky. Living in and admiring a country is one thing, but finding ways to envelop myself more deeply has already given me new appreciation for Geneva. And honing curiosity is really good for my soul (along with cardio, face masks, and tequila… see you so soon, old friend!!)

If you have advice on honing language skills, please do let me know. Hope your resolutions are off to a magnificent start!

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Bernadette Grace says:

    Nicole, I totally enjoy your musings and a new language IS not as easy as we may hope. Keep it up! Full immersion is the key. Label everything in your house in French and say the words daily as you look at them. Buena Suerte!


    1. Aw thanks, Bernadette!! Know you are a fellow curious learner so I truly appreciate your kind words and the tip ❤ Bon week-end!!


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