“We’re moving where?”
This was my response upon hearing my parent’s announcement that we would be leaving London and moving to the South of France. I was 15 at the time, and to me it all seemed like a pinterest inspired fantasy gone too far. I knew they liked the picturesque hills of Provence, but was this really necessary?
Prior to our big move, rather than scrambling for French learning tapes or making panicked attempts to go over the basics, I relaxed in the feeling that we’d all get by just fine. Alongside my assumption that someone would be able to always speak English, I’d previously excelled in French at school and I’d been told by my teachers that I had perfect pronunciation. My parents shared my confidence, and right up until moving day, none of us so much as glanced at a French-English dictionary.
My illusion was shattered, however, when a few days after we moved I was taken to a local music school for a piano lesson. I strode confidently up to the lady, and in my best accent said “Bonjour, je m’appelle Jaye”. Silence ensued, and it dawned on me:
I had absolutely no idea what to say after that.
6 years of French lessons, and I didn’t even know how to make basic social chit-chat. I couldn’t answer a single one of her questions, nor did I understand them.
I mentally prepared myself for a lifetime of introvertedness - how could I ever leave the house if I couldn’t even talk to people?
My frustration turned to disappointment in the French lessons I’d taken at school in the UK. All those hours spent conjugating verbs and learning farm animals on flashcards – all of that information felt completely useless to us there. I’d always taken pride in my ability to impress people with my talkative personality, and I was anxious that my broken French would render me an idiot in the eyes of my fellow residents. After a week or so of feeling low, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I needed to learn French – and fast.
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Step 1 – Frenchify the home
The first step of learning a language is complete and utter immersion. We stuck labels on every object around the house, and useful phrases remained on a whiteboard in our living room until we knew them by heart. French TV was always on in the background, and we made a policy to speak as much French to each other as we could. I filled my iPod with French music, and stacked French magazines on my desk. I chose an easy French book, and read a chapter every day – even though I didn’t understand the words yet. The aim here was to normalise the French language in our daily life.
Step 2 – Set up a language exchange
It can be exhausting for those around you to be constantly asked what something means. A language exchange is more mutually beneficial: find someone who is keen to learn the language that you speak, and you can help each other! Fortunately, the girl who lived next door was a similar age to me, and I straight away made it my mission to become her friend. She spoke fairly good english, but I asked her to speak French to me anyway. She was happy to translate anything I needed, so long as I was willing to teach her some English too.
We'd potter around the city chatting away in Frenglish, and before I knew it - we’d set up a language exchange.
Step 3 – Fill your home with people
There were a lot of English speaking expatriates in France, but we were cautious not to fall into the bubble of an English speaking community. We began hosting dinner parties in our home for neighbours and other French speaking friends. Meals, birthday parties, cocktail nights, afternoon tea – these events meant that we could interact with our community, immerse ourselves in the culture and show people that we valued their friendship – even if we couldn’t verbally express it (because we didn’t know how!). It also became the perfect way to practice our French in a comfortable and familiar environment. Never pass up the opportunity to socialise when learning a language!
Step 4 – Talk to children
Finally, I talked to children as often as I could. That’s not to say I went up to random children in the middle of the street (that would be creepy), but I found ways to converse with children before I had the courage to spark up convo with my peers. Luckily for me, my brother and sister are both younger, so our home typically resembled a crèche on the weekends. Babysitting and au pairing are also really good ways to practice a language. Kids are super un-judgemental, and engaging in play with them is a far less intimidating way to build your confidence.
For months, the concept of fluency in French felt intangible to me. Then, one day about 6 months after arrival, I went out with my next door neighbour and 4 of her friends who I’d never met before. Usually I would avoid having to spend too much time with new people, but I decided to go anyway. Suddenly…I was talking to them. And they were talking to me. Not only that, but I was thinking in French too. We could understand each other in complete fluency.
I'd predicted I could maybe learn French in 3 years - but not 6 months. It’s truly amazing what your brain can do when you're completely out of your comfort zone with no safety net.
Learning a language isn’t about sitting in front of textbooks conjugating verbs, or even learning vocabulary using flashcards. Learning a language should be intrinsically social, as language is about communication and connection. For a short time, you have to truly believe that you belong to that culture: eat the food, sing along to the songs (even if you have no idea what the lyrics mean at first), integrate into the community and be confident in your mistakes. Most of the time, locals will be impressed and encouraging – once you do finally crack it, you’ll realise it wasn’t so hard after all!
Do you have any tips on how to learn a language fast? Share them in the comments below.