July 2019 Postmortem Highlights

My frequent companions in my daily French language learning toil. Lausanne, Switzerland. August 2019.

My frequent companions in my daily French language learning toil. Lausanne, Switzerland. August 2019.

I postmortem each month shortly after it ends, reflecting on what happened in general and, more specifically, in the context of my goals. Though I don’t share all my insights here, I have made it a practice to share at least one key highlight or insight. (To read previous months’ reviews, search this site for the term “month-in-review.” For the site’s search engine, look in the upper right corner of this page. It has a magnifying glass icon next to it.)

I’ve worked at learning French for longer than I want to admit, given my sustained inability to communicate in it.

Even if we hadn’t moved to a French-speaking country, I would have tried to learn French. Arnaud’s family speaks mainly French, after all. And French is Arnaud’s native language. In fact, I took about nine months of French classes twice a week for the last year we spent in Houston.

Now that we live in a French-speaking country, I recognize that my existence here will always have walls until I can speak the language at least at a conversational level. Without French, I won’t make friends (other than people who’ve moved here from the United Kingdom, Canada, or the United States) and I’ll struggle at doctors’ offices, governmental and official meetings, the grocery store, and beyond. As much as I hate small talk, not having the option to use it feels like losing an appendage.

To learn French, I’ve taken the following steps:

  • I take lessons with a private tutor twice per week.

  • I listen to no fewer than four different learning-French podcasts: News in Slow French, Français Authentique, Coffee Break French, and Learn French with Daily Podcasts. Typically, to understand them at even a basic level, I need to listen to each episode at least twice (usually three times), preferably while reading the show notes.

  • I have a subscription to a monthly magazine for French learners called Bien Dire, which my French tutor secured for me.

  • I do French-language modules with the Rosetta Stone phone app.

  • I practice French at least one hour per day through reading my textbooks, magazines, and lesson notes; having small conversations out in the world (apologies to my patient tea shopkeepers, grocers, and coffee-shop baristas); and trying to speak with Arnaud.

Though I’ve had several people tell me how easily I’ll learn French with a French-speaking husband, I surmise that a French person speaking with me in French must feel like an experienced tennis player attempting a game with someone who can’t hit the ball back.

I can rarely understand what Arnaud says when he speaks in French, which requires him to repeat himself multiple times. I reward his painstaking effort by staring at him wide eyed for several moments, trying to formulate some approximation of a response to whatever I think he’s said. My mental gymnastics result in a garbled, typically nonsensical combination of sounds. We then work through what I wanted to say and give a few rounds of practice to how I should say it instead. After about fifteen minutes of this exercise, we’ve exhausted ourselves and managed to communicate, if luck graces us, only what we’d like to eat for dinner.

Arnaud wins the Good Sport Award.

Reassuringly, I can at least count illustrious and intelligent people in the “awful at learning French” boat with me, rowing frantically. Before I met Arnaud—foreshadowing?—I read Lauren Collins’s When in French, wherein she tries to learn the language after marrying a Frenchman she met in London and then decamping with him to Geneva. Her descriptions of experiences in French classes and her complete and longstanding bewilderment with the language make me feel a little less like a complete dunce (and give me hope that I, too, will learn this language someday).

And David Sedaris’s popular book Me Talk Pretty One Day features a story (printed in full in Esquire) about his attempts to learn French after moving to Normandy. In the essay, which recounts his coursework at the Alliance Française—a different branch of the same school I attended before leaving Houston—he describes nearly the same disturbing and bewildering conversations, bizarre teacher demeanor, and trembling fellow students that I experienced. (Perhaps these curiosities comprise part of Alliance Française teaching method?)

All this said: This July, I feel like I made some sort of progress in my French language skills.

I don’t know how to explain what I mean by “some sort of progress,” as I still can’t conduct even a basic conversation in French and I still need to have almost everything repeated multiple times—after which I’ve only grasped approximately 50 percent of the meaning. My progress, if it counts as progress, would probably go completely unrecognized to the outside-of-my-head world.

Inside my head, though, when I work to formulate sentences, I feel as though I don’t need to look up as many words and phrases as I once did. And when I do look up things—I try to write out my sentences before I check them, for practice—I discover that my attempt to write or say whatever I wanted to write or say sometimes miraculously comes up as correct (or, at least, it comes up as less incorrect than once it did). Small victories.

Of course, to keep me humble, my smugness evaporates almost immediately when, shortly after one of these small victories, I open my mouth in a store and the shopkeeper stares at me and shakes his head or I try to speak with Arnaud’s mother on FaceTime and she apologetically tells me that she doesn’t understand.

I still have a long way to go. Wish me luck.