When the language of ‘amour’ did not seem to love me

I started learning French in upper secondary, at the age of 16. I was so happy to finally be able to start an additional language at school (I tried to pick German in high school but there were not enough people interested to form a class).

The picture I had of France back then consisted pretty much of the Eiffel tower, baguette, the French revolution and the three musketeers.

I had also heard, that many French people  don’t like to speak English. A friend of mine had already studied a bit of French and she’s told me that French people don’t want to understand bad French either (I think her expertise was based on an experience where she’d been in Paris and tried to ask in French where the loo was, and got spoken to like she was dim-witted). So when learning French, you’d better learn it well. I didn’t worry about this too much – I did well in the exams and got nice grades. Clearly I was learning well enough?!

The first time I had to test my skills was in 2010, the summer after graduation from upper secondary, when I went backpacking around Europe with a friend. We stayed in Paris for several days and also visited Brussels, and I’m sure we tried to speak a bit of French every now and then. Oddly enough, I don’t remember too many situations… Maybe my brain tries to save me from remembering the painful moments of realizing that three years of work have been fruitless, when it came to real life situations.

I think there was a moment when I tried to buy stamps and the lady in the post office switched to English when I didn’t know the word for stamp. And maybe a guy on a night train who spoke French and whom I was unable to understand unless he almost spelled each word for me.

Oh, well.

I decided that French is difficult; maybe the language of amour just didn’t love anyone non-French that much. I wrote “good written and oral skills” on my CV anyway, and didn’t think about it much for a couple of years.

Three years later I was hiking in Belgium with my boyfriend. We were doing this scouting challenge called Explorer Belt, where the idea is to hike 200 km through a foreign country with no phone or GPS, and not much money, and you rely on the help of local people and try to learn as much as you can about the culture.

I noticed that if I started by asking a French-speaking person if they spoke English, the answer was no, and I didn’t get much help. But if I started with French, people would try to help. They would also soon switch to English, realizing, I guess, that they could better help me that way, my French being what it was. Anyway, at least trying seemed to make people friendlier and more helpful.

That time, I had a lot of lovely experiences trying to speak French. There was an old lady, who let us have a glass of water and sit in her garden for a while. A guy who owned a bakery told us about his work and showed us how he makes buns. An old couple let us stay in their home and explained us about Belgian cuisine.

Having a cookie at the Belgian bakery

Magical moments, when you see a glimpse of someone else’s life. I wasn’t able to speak much, but I managed to explain the purpose of our trip and ask for the way, for a place to stay and for some stories, and I understood mostly what people said, and that already felt like a lot. I thought, ‘ok, I’m far from fluent, hardly even conversational, but I can get along if I need to’.

But the frost keeps building (as Alex Rawlings writes) and a year ago I was totally unable to keep up a conversation with a Brazilian guy at my summer job, who’d studied in France and spoke French fluently.

Last spring, I did an exchange semester in Sweden, and met so many great people from all around the world. The time there woke up my language passion again, stronger than ever before. I felt the urge to start studying German, Chinese, Dutch and Czech right away. Maybe someday I will, but there’s something to do before that. I feel like I’ve done learning French completely wrong for all this time. It somehow feels like a friendship gone bad that I’d like to fix things with. Maybe French would love me after all. (Hence the Carla Bruni song.)

That’s why I’ve been trying to focus on French for now!