J’ai besoin de comprendre!

J’ai besoin de comprendre!

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It is nearly two years since I arrived in France. When I came here to live, it was to marry a wonderful French man that I had met through some friends in Santa Monica, California. His English was excellent, so getting to know one another and forming a relationship was not too difficult. Certainly there were and still are cultural differences, but that’s the fun part.


My French, at that point in time, was minimal. On my previous trips to France, I knew enough to ask for things politely. If I couldn’t get what I needed, I would ask, “Parlez-vous, anglais?” or I would point to what I needed and add, “S’il vous plait.” However, usually I found, in Paris, that most people knew enough English that communication worked between us. I was sometimes lucky enough to travel with someone who had studied French in school. So that, too, was a good reason to escape learning the language. Nevertheless, to come and live one’s life in France, one needs to acquire the language. Learning the language of your adopted country is respectful to the native citizens and it certainly helps to make your life more interesting and fulfilling.


In March I began private lessons with a young woman two times a week for one and half hours each. She taught me grammar, but she emphasized verbs, verbs and verbs. I learned all the tenses and studied the rules. But I still couldn’t HEAR the language and I couldn’t always get my sentences out in the right tense with the pronouns in the right place. It was overwhelming: “Should I use qui, que, dont, ce que, or ce qui?” “And what about the words of time…depuis, pendant, dans, etc.” Whew, what a puzzle! By the time I got a thought out of my mouth, I usually found that the subject had changed!


Then, of course, to add to the problems, when I did get the thought out, I couldn’t understand the person’s response. Mon Dieu, c’est trés difficile. And so I would fall back onto the mother-tongue and ask to speak with someone who could speak English. Ironically, it seemed that everyone around me was getting better at their English while I continued to struggle with French! What was wrong with this picture!?!


I have said to my husband that I wish I could insert a computer chip in my head that would just program me to talk and understand French. But it is, of course, not possible to do this….yet. You have to put in the work and I think this is going to take a long time.


So this summer, I decided I would try another approach. I enrolled in the Alliance Française extensive course. They offer an extensive course at Alliance Française— 2 hours a day, 5 days a week.


I felt I needed to be in a classroom atmosphere “to listen” to French being spoken and then have the opportunity “to speak back” in French. Of course, the risk you have in a classroom situation is that the classes are too big. And yes, at Alliance Française, I would say that is the case. In summer the classes can be 15 to 20 people. But there were several things I enjoyed about these classes. One was that they are composed of people from all over the world. In my class, I had people in my class from Chili, Iran, Taiwan, Brazil, Nigeria and for the most part, our one common language was not English, but French. I loved it. I was the oldest in the class with people that were old enough to be my children, but I didn’t care. I made some nice friends. I may not see them ever again, but for the time it felt fantastic.


The school itself is well-organized, and accommodating. I liked my teachers and the staff. They were helpful and willing to go the extra mile. And, I believe, as much as a school can, Alliance Française helps to breath life into the language learning process. They have a wonderful multimedia resource center that gives students the opportunity to explore the language through video, audio and electronic media. Since a teacher can only provide so much, it is the responsibility, after all, of each student to take their studies as far as they want. Alliance Française offers the students the chance to take that responsibility by bringing together the culture and the language through the Maison des Cultures du Monde which provides experiences to the students in French culture. Finally, I think the cost is reasonable.


But there was another aspect of this experience that made the remaining days of summer full of delight. The daily journey to Paris transposed me to another level of my love affair with Paris. I loved getting up in the morning taking the RER train into the city. It gave me time to just immerse myself into a good book (If you are wondering, yes, the book was in English. My French didn’t improve that much!). As we approached Gare de Nord, the train submerged underground into the bowels of the RER/Métro system. I exited at Châtelet and connected with the 4 line, still never seeing the light of day. However, when I reached my destination of Saint Placide, I ascended on the escalator into beautiful Paris as it is preparing for its day. This is not just Paris, but the Left Bank; an area that has always been known for its life of art, intellectualism, bohemian lifestyles, and culture. As I have always been fascinated by the Paris of the 20’s and 30’s, I love the Left Bank.


In July, many people have left the city for their vacances. So at that time of the day, at that time of the year, the city has just enough people and noise to make it interesting. The morning is fresh, light and full of promise. I love Paris this way. Some days I was so entranced with splendor of early morning in Paris, that I would take my café at a little brasserie in front of the Métro exit. I would order my tartine and café and stare out into the street at the people. Were they just on their way to work? Did they appreciate being in the city this early as I did? I am sure a lot of people who live and work in Paris take it for granted. But I hope I never do, as there is delight everywhere in this beautiful city that is so full of life.


Of course, the final question here is, “Did my French improve?” The easy answer is that a 6 weeks of Alliance Française is not going to make me fluent in the language. However, yes, I think there has been improvement. I learned new vocabulary, I reviewed a lot of what I had already learned, and I became a more confident. Et, oui, je comprend mieux! I do understand more that is being said to me, but the bottom line is that I have a long way to go and I need to continue the journey. With all journeys, it is one step at a time, but I assure you, this summer’s journey was one of the nicest experiences I have had in embracing my new French culture.


Jeri Benoit is a guest contributor.