This sounds like something so obvious, it must be easy. You go to France, speak French all the time and come back fluent. Huzzah! Year abroad objective number one completed. Alas, it is not that simple.
Before you go abroad you might read something about having to make an effort to absorb the language, it usually involves the phrase ‘active learner’. If you’re anything like me (sorry if you are) you scoff at the warning. I am living in France? That is surely effort enough! All my friends will be French! I’ll go to my French university classes! Anything I do will be educational because it will be in French! Well, as much as I hate to agree with handbooks, I have discovered they have a point.
Finding people to speak French with is not as easy as it seems. Yes, you carry out shop transactions and restaurant orders in French, but let’s face it, that’s not much past our GCSEs is it? Being fluent is about being about to talk about anything, not just ordering a croissant and glass of wine (the classic French breakfast). Your mum might think you’re fluent, but pretty much every French person will know you’re not; including the teachers who will be grading you when you return.
I thought I would make several best friends in Freshers’ Week in my flat. There are two things wrong with that thought. As discussed in another blog, university accommodation is slightly different here; so no ready-made French friends there. Freshers’ Week didn’t seem to exist either. Everyone started at a different time and as there is no real students’ union there were no mass events of drinking and enforced friend-making. Perhaps I should have had the confidence to speak to people in classes more. There are definitely times I should have been friendlier. But I was dealing with homesickness and as such I could barely blurt out ‘bonjour’, much less sound like someone you might want to be friends with.
So I made mistakes and the system didn’t make it easy. I suddenly realised a month had passed and I was not going to come back as thoroughly ‘French’ as all my friends and family had so eagerly anticipated. How did I rectify this? I got ‘Tandem’ partners, which is basically where you meet someone who speaks the language you want to learn to speak your language for a bit and then they speak theirs. This meant that I would have long conversations in French that went beyond ‘je voudrais un croissant s’il vous plait et un verre de vin’. It also helps you meet people who are sympathetic to the language learner’s plight.
It also occurred to me that I could continue to do the things I enjoy, France wasn’t Outer Mongolia after all! I made some forays into the Amnesty group in Strasbourg, but unfortunately the group I found weren’t as lovely as the Edinburgh University group and so I didn’t continue. To the chagrin of many neighbours I play the violin, so whilst I was here I decided to get lessons. This has turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to speak in French and learn to respond quickly without translating in my head first.
Without a doubt the greatest aid to my speaking skills came from moving flat. I now live in a flat share with three French students and speak a decent amount of French every day. It’s meant I’ve learnt everyday language that real French people use. It’s certainly been challenging at points and sometimes I’ve felt like I did during my first ever French lesson when the teacher was speaking French and not a word was familiar. But moments like that have thankfully become more and more unusual and my French has rapidly improved.
So, am I going to come back fluent? That depends who I’m speaking to. I’ve discovered fluency really is an objective thing. I don’t think I’ll be at the level I want to be (i.e. where French people think I’m French) unless I live here for a lot longer. However I do certainly feel more confident and sometimes surprise myself with what I can say. Going to other countries has made me realise how much I do know. In France I feel I can go into almost any situation and get through it, which isn’t something I’m going to sniff at.