Adventures of living in France. Can we become bilingual? Part I

Learning – or slowly acquiring – a new language is a miracle. Some of us have been studying it in books and in life, by teaching language as well as studying one, and still don’t know how it “happens.”

I wanted to make a “place” where people can talk about that process – the questions, frustrations, doubts, surprises, delights, discoveries. I don’t know if a blog is an appropriate place but I’m hoping people will find their way here and add thoughts so we can compare, contrast and maybe learn something.

I started by asking a few students who had studied with me in Boston and then – lucky folks! – moved to France how they were experiencing the process. I’ve received some great responses I will put here. Any observations would be welcome!

The first is from Bonnie who moved to a small town with her husband about four years ago. The following words are an extract from her account:

My French is going pretty well.  Getting better all the time but have a long way still to go. One important thing, I think – I NEVER assume someone speaks any english.  I NEVER start out by asking if the person speaks english.  Why should they?  They live in France.  However, I am feeling quite comfortable talking to everyone and, frankly, the French don’t care in the least if you botch it up – they are just so glad one makes the effort.  On more than 1 occasion French people have complimented me on my spoken French and at the same time bluntly criticized foreigners who come here, don’t learn the language, don’t wish to integrate, etc.
I find that talking to neighbors, shopkeepers, tradesmen, etc is best.  I see many French tourists all day as we live across the street from a national monument – a 12 th century romanesque church which is an absolute gem.  I open and close it everyday and change the bouquets weekly so in the course of that, I get chatting with the people who stop to visit.  This year I volunteered to be in charge of the summer concerts at the church – welcoming the musicians, helping set up, etc.  More ways to speak with people!  LISTENING to French people speak, greet each other, etc is probably most helpful.  Even if I pick up a new phrase or two each week, I am content. Obviously someone living in Paris or another large city will have an entirely different experience, but here in a small village, things like this are paramount.

Wright Salisbury, a retired architect from Lexington, wrote from a whole other perspective. Before moving, he hoped to be “the charming ole American” who could get away with French errors. I was surprised that he changed his mind. He writes:

I take four French lessons each week.  Far from being the “‘charming ole American guy’ who can get away with saying anything as long as that charm remains,” I’m very cautious. The French will make allowances, but I don’t want to offend. Of course, as here or anywhere, what constitutes proper behavior changes with the individual. The French are very polite and every conversation, even with a cashier begins with “Bonjour madame” (or “monsieur”). My French teacher greets museum guards when she enters an exhibit space, which it never occurred to me to do. I confess that I always regarded them as part of the furniture.
I don’t really feel more confident; I just say “What the hell” and keep blathering on.

I myself remember a moment I thought monumental at the time. My Danish roommate had set her alarm clock to ring at 4am in our Parisian dormitory. I awoke in shock and yelled questions at her in French using the past conditional or something like that, realizing afterward, that I never could have said that a month before – especially half asleep.
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