Rather than waiting for my free 100 hours of French lessons in a school of questionable quality, I signed up for 40 hours of French in Alliance Française Strasbourg over a 2 week period in the middle of a couple of deployments. Disclaimer: universally, I am known to be terrible at languages, including my native tongue of Filipino. In university, I scorned French because I thought it was incredibly mainstream (in hindsight, this hipster decision of mine was a karmic bitch slap to the face) and took Italian instead… because I really loved Italian food. This is not the best basis for a decision like this. Sage advice, you can point at a menu without having to say a word but it’s embarrassing to have to mime using a toilet because you can’t speak the language. To this day, all I remember is “io sono Gabriela”, which doesn’t really take you anywhere.
A couple of years later, I took French classes in Alliance Française Manila before going to France for the first time. It was great for the basics until I realized that French is one of the languages that seem to evolve really quickly and colloquially. I was basically speaking the equivalent of old people French and was probably too uncool for anyone my age.
Fast forward to several years and just a couple of months ago, I was in my first course in actual France and sweating bullets - because I had no idea that the difficulty level in Alliance Française varied between countries. A1 in Manila is worlds different from A1 in Strasbourg. And of course, it would be the most difficult in France - being the native country of the French language after all...
Alliance Française Strasbourg is probably one of the best schools there is and we had a couple of really excellent teachers. To learn well, the best method is not to say a word in English and to give our teachers credit, they really tried. When they couldn’t explain something to our slow English brains, their body language was incredible. One of my greatest takeaways in learning French is how expressive it is as a language, where the facial expressions and the hand gestures go hand in hand with the words. There are things that seem universally French, which I’ve seen from French speakers all over the world. Like the little hitched sigh (!) of breath that comes at the end of a really long sentence said without pause… almost like a little verbal period. Or the little moue and shrug when conveying something they passively disagree with (sort of like the equivalent of “whatever!” but without the Z snap or like a wordless “ah! well what can you do?”). (When I’m outside France, in places like Ethiopia or South Sudan or the UK, it’s a little weird and bittersweet because it reminds me of my husband and makes me a little bit homesick.)
It was a really interesting class, with an age range of 16 - 36 years old with all of us at varying levels of being beginners… and also varying levels of commitment. I wouldn’t consider myself an old person but realized quickly that I was turning into a grumpy old adult ranting about the attention span of the teenagers in our class. The stress of having everything to lose (40 hours and you still can’t speak French?! And you live in France?Go back home!) led to rants to an American friend about how these children should not be in our class of serious learners. Quels enfants !
For each day, I had a mini ticker in my head, rating the percentage I actually understood from the jumble that the professor was saying. Day one started out with 10%, where I despaired actually learning anything aside from “Bonjour!” “Au revoir!”. By day 5, it had miraculously adjusted to 50% and incrementally improved. What did not change was heading home after 4 hours of lessons to crash on my couch for a 2 hour recovery siesta and cool my overheating brain.
As part of the initiative to learn as much as I could in the two week period before being deployed to South Sudan, I signed up for a few of the cultural activities being offered. This included a tour of the Musee de l'Oeuvre Notre Dame - Strasbourg, a beautiful little museum which houses the original artwork of the Strasbourg Cathedral, taken during the preservation and renovation efforts of the foundation —or so based on the website, because the entire guided tour was completely in French. The only thing I understood were individual words like “l’ange” and “Dieu.” To this day, I have no idea what I saw and will have to redo this tour entirely.
One success I can claim after learning this course is my ability to understand anyone above the age of 60. We visited some relatives of my husband and I sat there patting myself on the back for understanding 90% of the 45 minute conversation. Not because a switch worked in my brain, but because my vocabulary is totally appropriate to the elderly. I can speak at length about the weather and how my vacation went. My vocab skills revolve around “I live in Strasbourg. It is a beautiful city. It is not cold in the summer.” It is polite and the complete opposite of explicit.
I’ve now gone to and from South Sudan, armed with a ton of apprehension that everything I’ve learned would have disappeared. But it has been a happy realization that my comprehension has incrementally improved and the adjustment period has been fairly easy to get over… but not as easy getting over my shame at my truly appalling French accent. I have been trying my best to practice, but I have a huge caveat for moving to a city like Strasbourg where people are pretty trilingual (French, English, German). In a place like Paris, where I’ve encountered the snobbery of refusing to speak to me in English (makes sense, I am in their country), it’s the pride of knowing how to speak English that comes out in Strasbourg. Good for my transition, terrible for my learning curve.
A typical conversation for me in French, par example, dans un café:
Me: “Je voudrais un cappucino, s’il vous plait.” (I would like a cappucino please).
Cashier: (upon hearing my terrible accent) “What size?”
Face palm. Cue me petulantly complaining to my husband about how I was supposed to practice when people reply to me in English. What nerve they have for being trilingual!
The only practice I probably get is with La Poste, where none of the mailmen know any English. A few days ago, I was on the phone with a friend from the Philippines, when our buzzer rang. I let the postman into the building and popped my head out of our apartment, just in time to hear him call out for my location. Happy I knew how to answer, I yelled out “troisième etage, s’il vous plait!” I must have apparently sounded pretty French because a steady stream of sentences preceded his ascent up the stairs, none of which I could hear or understand. When he came up, I was finally able to say my token “Je ne comprends pas. Parlez anglais?”
After this entire interaction, I suddenly remembered that I was still on the phone with my friend who tells me “wow, you can speak French!” I’d love to keep this illusion alive but sadly, will be frank with you — the times, I don’t speak polite elderly French, I speak barbarian French. The panic of having to speak to someone causes my knowledge of all prepositions to disappear. It’s not uncommon for me to have a conversation with someone where I sound like a caveman barking “Want! Glass! Water! Thanks!” I also have not learned how to do past or future tenses so would very much like to stay in the present, if you'd like me to carry a conversation with you.
I have no earth shattering tips or recommendations on learning language, save for the universal fact of one thing: drunk Abbi speaks pretty damn good French. Maybe alcoholism is the real Rosetta stone.
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.