As a thirteen-year-old, I swore I’d never go to France. Nothing wrong with the country, or the people. It was just the language – and my fear of being made a fool of because I didn’t understand the language.
Twenty years later, it was a different matter. I was in France, and definitely getting by in French (after a good bit of practice).
I’ve been interested in languages for as long as I can remember. While I was at junior school, there were Sunday morning language lessons on the BBC, repeated next Saturday and you’re ready for the next episode the following day. I picked up a smattering of words, but not being able to afford the books that went with the courses, I wasn’t going to progress very far. Spanish, German, Italian . . . I’m sure French was in there too, but I don’t remember it.
At the grammar school, I happened to be in a class that learned German – I wasn’t brilliant at it, but I enjoyed it. After two years we had the opportunity to do a second language. My father persuaded me to do Latin – he wanted me to be a doctor, and apparently that meant I had to learn Latin. What sold it to me was that it was the root of several other languages, and in theory would make them easier to learn. The Latin classes didn’t happen – not enough kids signed up. So I went for French.
French classes were a nightmare. After the precision of German pronunciation and grammar, I could not cope with the strange sounds, the letters that were silent in French or the different language structure. It might as well have been Martian. Nor did it help that most of the other kids seemed to have done some French in junior school, and I hadn’t. This was the only subject that had me reduced to tears in class, and on more than one occasion.
Hence my teenage declaration about not visiting France. The thought of making a fool of myself, or someone making a fool of me, was more than I could cope with.
Roll on twenty years, and I was embarking on a year-long trip around Europe. I hadn’t used my O-level German since the summer I left school, nor had any time or opportunity to learn any other language – just picking up a few words here and there from novels and magazines. I felt I needed to be able to communicate at least at a basic level in other languages. And that’s what the ‘Teach Yourself’ books were for.
A combination of those books for German, French and Spanish (they are still sitting on my bookshelves) and a very basic computer with very BASIC programming, took up much of my spare time in the year leading up to the journey. Computers in those days didn’t talk back – no sound, no pictures – just words on a screen. I learned the words and phrases in the books, transferring them to the computer, having to spell everything correctly before the computer would let me move on to the next phrase. I crossed the channel knowing words and phrases, but with no practice of hearing them, or knowing how to say them correctly.
And so it was that I eventually walked into a boulangerie, and asked the classic question ‘Avez-vous du pain, si’l vous plait?’. The woman behind the counter looked at me and smiled. She spoke slowly. I believe the gist of her answer was ‘No, but you might get some from the mini-market down the road’. Whew! I had survived my first foray into spoken French. And yes, the little supermarket had some sliced white bread.
During the next three weeks, my confidence and speaking ability improved – so long as I didn’t have to try to understand more than one phrase at a time when someone spoke to me! When the camper developed a knocking sound and I called out the breakdown people, I started off trying to explain in French, but was so relieved when the person on the other end asked if it would be easier to speak English. Fortunately, most spoken conversations were pretty standard tourist things, and the rest was reading signs and information in visitor centres, etc.
I could tell a similar story about the next five months in Spain and Portugal, though on returning to France it took a while to remember to say Bonjour rather than Buenos dias, and Merci instead of Gracias. But my language skills were certainly put to the test when the camper needed a service. My husband at that time refused to communicate in any language except English.
We knew, from a mechanic in Gibraltar, that there was a fault with the brakes, and this guy had shown us what needed to be done via the diagrams in the manual. I attempted to pass this information to the French mechanic, and he said no problem. When we collected the vehicle, he had tightened the hand brake cable so much that there was little difference between the on and off positions. We were disappointed, but not surprised, when the cable snapped a couple of days later. We limped back to the garage, and now the mechanic refused to speak any English. He made it obvious that he wasn’t going to stand for a foreign woman telling him what to do. At least he did fix the brake cable, but at a further cost.
The next potentially difficult situation happened a couple of weeks later. We were driving along the Avignon bypass, when a car ahead of us suddenly left the road, skidded across a dirt track (where road widening work was going on) and disappeared down a bank. If anybody else saw what happened they did not stop. The car had come to rest on a steep gravel bank and the woman driver, without a seatbelt, had slid across to the passenger side where she sat crying.
We helped her get out, and led her back up the bank. She realised we were struggling with French, and so told us in broken English that she wanted to be at the bottom of the bank, and later said she wished she was dead. After asking if we had children, she said we were lucky, she had three but they and their father were not with her now. A Frenchman stopped to see what was going on and offered to take her home ‑ it was probably easier for her to talk to him in French than to us in English anyway. It was hard to tell whether she had been suicidal before, or if this was a genuine accident that had made her realise she had just come close to solving all her problems.
As we got back to the camper, a police car pulled up – we were on a road where vehicles were not supposed to stop. Neither of the officers spoke English, and I had to explain with a mixture of French words and actions what had happened. Fortunately, they were happy with the explanation, and let us go without further ado.
Four months later we were crossing France on the way back to Britain. Somewhere we stopped for supplies, and I went into a travel agency to ask about the car ferries across the channel. Which would be the best port to aim for? And what about the news stories (we could get Radio 4 on the longwave frequencies back then) of strikes causing chaos at the ports. This conversation took place entirely in French – halting French in my case, but French none-the-less. I was proud of myself.
I’ve been to France several times since then, including once to a conference (with papers presented in French, Spanish, and English). I’ve even translated a paper from French into English – it helped that I had seen the illustrated presentation, and that I was familiar with the scientific terms about the subject. The written language is still much easier for me to deal with than the spoken one.
There are two things I’ve learned from this experience. One is that if you HAVE to and/or WANT to learn something, it is much easier than if you are casual about it – just thinking it would be a nice thing to do. Secondly, that being immersed in a language – ie being where it is spoken all around you – makes it much easier than trying to learn from three or four lessons a week at school.
And in general, people abroad really do appreciate you making at least an attempt at the language, rather than expecting them to do all the work.
More about France
A selection of organised trips (eco-volunteering, guided vacations and single day/night opportunities) for watching wolves in Europe.
The Golfe du Morbihan provides a huge feast for wintering waders and wildfowl. Here are a few suggestions for places to watch them.
The French Alps provide a wonderful backdrop for a botanical and/or butterfly trip. Here are some of my recommendations after a week at La Grave, near the Col du Galibier which is equally well-known for the tour du France cycle race.