The most daunting thing for me (and probably for anyone else you ask) about making the move to a new country is the language barrier.
I’ve not made any secret of the fact that despite the fact that my wife is French and that my daughter is half French, I do not (or at least when I left the UK, did not) speak much French. I figured that I would be okay. I’ll just throw myself into the language and culture and survive. Like jumping in the pool at the deep end. I’ll be fine. I suppose at the back of my mind as well, I was thinking that I would be able to always fall back on my wife to translate things for me. And basically manage my life.
Honestly, this approach has both worked well, and also been a disaster at points.
On a positive side, I feel like it has forced me to learn French, because if I don’t, I will get left behind. The first thing it has taught me to do is get across my basic needs and requirements, rather than learning “tourist French”. It has provided a good foundation on which I am adding two or three new words / verbs a week. There are still gaping holes in knowledge and quite often I will be in conversation and think “ah…I don’t know the French word for what I am trying to convey”. But that is the fastest way of learning because someone will give you or prompt you the word. which can be committed to memory. Alternatively it will make me adapt what I do already know and makes me think of another way of saying it using the vocab I have access to, which means I am practising and making it habit.
However, while this approach has been positive, the immediate negatives have been much more impactful and leave a lasting impression.
The first two weeks of life in France, I felt like a monk that had taken a vow of silence. My wife went with me everywhere and basically talked for me. I’m sure there are still neighbours based on that first few weeks that think I am mute. Anything I needed, from a baguette to conversations with online grocers that decided they just weren’t going to deliver our groceries because they didn’t feel like it. I was helpless, and at one point threw what can only be described as a three year old’s tantrum. I am a fairly independent person, so now falling back onto a very strong reliance was having an impact on me, to the point I didn’t want to leave the flat.
I also felt like locals were looking at me and thinking “you live here and you don’t talk french”? One of the local shopkeepers looked at me like I had come into her house and taken a big old dump under the tree on Christmas day when I didn’t understand when she asked if I had a 20 cent coin when paying for something.
It’s difficult during these moments not to think “OMG what have I done? I need to go back”. But I persevere.
Luckily, the in-laws have been very understanding, and have started to be very complimentary of me and the way I am structuring sentences and responses now.
The thing I have to remember (and anyone else in this situation) is that there is no quick fix to this. Well, there is, but it includes a DeLorean and a trip to university on a language course. This, like anything is a process, and when I look how far I have come since September, I am actually fairly proud of myself. Only this week I saw a lady struggling on the metro in Paris with a large luggage and offered to take it for her, in French. That to me is progress. When I arrived, all I would have been able to do is point at the bag and gesture (which would probably look fairly threatening on the metro in Paris.
For anyone else in the same situation, I have a few tips to help make things easier.
- Don’t drink. I know, easier said than done in France, right? For me, if I have a glass of wine (or five) with lunch then I can kiss comprehension good bye. While it does make me more confident when speaking French (and ridiculously makes me enhance my accent) if my head is swimming I can’t keep up with fast paced conversations.
- Conversations with multiple participants – don’t put too much pressure on yourself to join in. I have found this is almost counter productive, becuase the conversation moves so fast. Think about how when you talk English (or your native language) with other native speakers. How many subjects can you cover in five minutes, especially when you are having a laugh. And quick fire jokes and conversation changes can quickly get out of hand. I find myself trying to formulate a response to something that was being spoken about two minutes ago, when the subject has changed five times already. Don’t be afraid to ask people to speak a little slower. Don’t be afraid of saying you don’t follow. Someone will translate and you will quickly start finding common words that you can identify and pick up on the subjects.
- Try. Try try try. The biggest fear is sounding stupid. But people are generally more understanding than you think. Laugh about the mistakes. Mistakes make you stronger. I’ve told people I’m going to eat Creme Brulee with a pair of pants (I confused “cuillère” with “culotte”. Believe it or not, you will learn quicker because you associate with words with a funny memory.
- Buy magazines and newspapers about things you are passionate about. I have picked up SO MUCH during the world cup by purchasing L’equipe (a daily sports newspaper) and France Football.
- Watch the news – and put on French subtitles on any French TV you watch. One of the most difficult things is learning where one word ends and the next word starts in every day conversation. Subtitles on French TV will help you to see what they are actually saying and how the words flow into each other, and where the words stop and a new word begins. This has been really helpful.
I know, it’s easy for me to sit here though and say all this…it has taken me a long time to get over this basic fear of sounding stupid, but now I am ordering my own baguettes and hot chocolates. I am asking for help getting to Versailles, from Paris and finding the quickest route. I am offering to help people on the metro.
I still have a long, long way to go, but compared to where I started, I can look back and be happy with my progress.