I have been learning French for over ten years now, in fact, I think it’s at the point where I have been doing this for half my life. In that time I’ve been told many things about what I should and should not do when attempting to speak French. But some of that advice has just made trying to speak so much harder. Whilst I’ve been here I’ve realised so many things which have made speaking French a lot easier.
The number one thing that I am so grateful to now know is that the French use the pronoun ‘on’ to say ‘we’. So to say ‘we are eating’ you say ‘on mange’. The wily among you will ask, what about ‘nous’, the ‘we’ that you learn at secondary school (so ‘nous mangeons’)? Well this is actually the more formal usage. We are taught that ‘on’ is like ‘one’ and so come to think of it as formal, whereas it is the other way round. Any French student will know that it is usually a million times easier to deal with ‘on’ than it is ‘nous’ (I won’t get into any more grammar by elaborating). Now I know I can use ‘on’ in everyday conversation, life is just simpler.
Teachers scare you into silence. When you’re learning you are told to ‘think in French’ and construct sentences in a French way. Trying to do this often just left me confused and speechless. But honestly, sometimes the phrasing of French is quite similar to how we form sentences. For example, you’re told that you must use the future tense and using ‘I am going to + verb’ constructions is being lazy. Actually, I’ve noticed that the French use that all the time!
At university you get grammar thrown at you from all angles. The correct tense must be used! What about the subjunctive? Do I use ‘tu’ (informal) or ‘vous’ (polite)? If I get any of this wrong no-one will understand me and I will be sent a letter from the Academie Francaise itself mocking me! But in a normal conversation it is impossible to keep up and be involved if you are thinking of all these things. By the time you have formulated a sentence the opportunity to use it has passed you by. Sometimes the best thing to do is just say something. I know that is can be awkward as you stumble through a sentence, but it’s better than being silent for the whole time. Often, as you start speaking you stop thinking about all the grammar and find yourself coming out with something vaguely French. So give it a whirl.
Here’s a fun fact… If you say ‘en fait’ (pronouncing the ‘t’) you immediately become one hundred times more French. It’s one of those little phrases that they pepper their sentences with and makes your speaking sound more natural. I’ve also recently discovered ‘tu vois?’ (you see?). Every time I use one of them I can feel a beret forming atop my head.
Of all the thousands of things I’ve learnt this year, just getting on with it has to be in the top five. It’s too easy to let fear stop you doing things. I wish I could say that I always just go for it and speak. Honestly, I don’t. Sometimes I’m tired, grumpy or I just can’t face it. Sometimes it feels like all I have learnt that day is how impossible French is and I am doomed to stumble through the simplest of sentences. But then you get a day where it just happens. French people understand you. You use a magic phrase and surprise yourself. For a second you realise you’ve been speaking without thinking. Those days make the grumpy days, the years of persevering and the endless grammar entirely worth it. And when you’re going through a grumpy day? Have a Carambar.