April 24, 2015, by Rachel Bainbridge

I can access a whole other culture

During my first few months in France I was happy enough just to make myself understood. I was massively pleased with the relative easiness of setting up my rent, bank account and social security and I surprised myself in being able to get what I wanted from teachers/shop staff/the CAF officers. After nine years of studying French, succeeding in getting a secretary to help me fill in some forms probably shouldn’t have been a big deal, but it definitely felt like one.

Understanding staff room conversations, let alone being able to take part in them, is another matter. It doesn’t help that the teachers at my school are big into word-play and language jokes which I have no chance of understanding even when they try to explain. There are a lot of young teachers in my lycĂ©e and when we hang out outside of school I don’t find it as difficult to take part, probably because it’s after a few drinks and because we’re not discussing timetabling and lesson plans and French education policy. But there is just something about the staffroom that makes things difficult and days when I can participate are happy, happy days.

Teaching English is opening me up to whole new lexical fields. By working with Bac Pro Electrician pupils, I’ve learnt the words for screwdriver (tournevis) and wiring (cablage) and thanks to my other lessons I’ve learnt words about food, immigration, technology, horror films, newspapers and medical transplants. By helping with science lessons that are taught in English, I’ve learnt all sorts of words about antibiotics and types of cells, not just the French ones but also the long-forgotten GCSE science English ones. The task now is to try to remember them.

I came back to France after Christmas with the resolution to make more of an effort to learn French. I had assumed that just by being in France I would magically absorb language without even trying, but that it categorically not the case. I’ve realised I’m not actually very good at remembering words. I’m now trying to write down words I learn and phrases I hear and testing myself to make sure they don’t fly straight out of my brain. Not taking the easy option of basic structures, but using more complex and authentic phrases (reflexive verbs, je demanderai instead of je vais demander, idioms), is hard, especially when under pressure in a conversation, but I think it’s important. Being able to say exactly what you want to say is key to having more than superficial conversations and forming proper relationships.

Reading the French news coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks (or attentats, a word I’ll be sure to never forget now) reminded me that being able to understand French means that I can access a whole other culture – be it journalistic opinion, politics, interviews, film or books. The next step is being able to use this kind of language myself to express opinions, take part in this culture and to form deeper connections with people. In the hope that if nothing more at least I’ll be able to take part in staffroom gossip.

Posted in Language acquisition