Learning French in Paris: an uplifting reminder in a dark place…

MyFrenchLife™ - learning French in Paris - Alliance Francaise studentsDespite the calendar insisting that it was 26 August, the grim, drizzly weather seemed to attempt to persuade us that we found ourselves in February. But there was a silver lining to this very grey cloud – it was a perfect day to visit the Catacombs with the Alliance Française Paris Île-de-France

Admittedly, I was feeling a little sorry for myself given the weather that morning (I had not left Ireland and come to France envisioning this drizzle).

In spite of the weather and the fact that the Catacombs, although interesting, are not the most uplifting of surroundings, chatting to one student from the Alliance did me a world of good. It reminded me of something important: the need to take it slowly from time to time.

Discovering subterranean France

MyFrenchLife™ - learning French in Paris - catacombs map

Before the visit to the Catacombs, I didn’t realise that the area we viewed is only a tiny fragment of the whole labyrinth that runs under Paris. It would be impossible to cover the whole length and breadth of the site in a day. For the visit, we had to be satisfied with viewing a small piece of the whole area, and learning a little of the whole history.

Likewise, it takes much longer to learn French than most people realise: as soon as you’ve mastered some tricky conjugation or learnt another list of vocabulary there’s another just around the corner. For many, the process seems endless.

A second meeting

Chatting to Alliance student Fabiana in this underground labyrinth was – excuse the continued weather metaphor – a breath of fresh air. Especially after some of the slightly disillusioned Erasmus students you chance upon, who begrudge their lack of French friends, and as they perceive it, lack of progress in French.

We had met before at a recent Alliance event. I loved hearing her talk happily along in French, which she is learning in order to both find a job, and for her husband (a Frenchman).

It had been a few weeks since we had seen each other, and I wanted to hear about the progress she was making and how she was finding life in France.

Learning French has trying moments

Like most people far from home, Fabiana missed her family and her home. However, comme toujours, her positivity was a delightful change.

Even for someone so positive, it can be difficult to immerse yourself – and learning French isn’t always easy. Fabiana was also busy searching for a job. Although she is qualified as an industrial engineer with a wealth of experience, having worked for Ford Motors and GM, we all know that the job search can be a trying one. She spoke of how difficult it is for even French students to find a job in this economy, something which has often also worried me.

En fait, the whole experience of trying to set up your life in France – with a husband by your side or not – can be a little difficult. Fabiana really caught my attention and sympathy when she described a recent trip to Saint-Tropez with her husband. Wanting to save a little money, the pair had driven down. Unfortunately an incident with the car ended up costing them over 800 euros. As she said herself, she could have gone back to Colombia for that price!

Remaining positive

Despite the minor challenges, Fabiana remained encouragingly positive. She still has hope for her job search, especially given all the experience behind her, and believes it is just a matter of time and working on her French.

She has decided to focus on the progress she has made, rather than how far there still remains to go before she can call herself truly fluent. Like many of the students from the Alliance, she could only say ‘bonjour’ and ‘ça va’ in the beginning. Now, she has the confidence to converse with her husband and with his friends in French, which is an impressive amount of progress in itself.

Slow and steady when learning French in Paris

MyFrenchLife™ - learning French in Paris - catacombs

There is no doubt that learning both a language and how to navigate a different city can be frustrating. Fabiana and the Catacombs reminded me that sometimes there are advantages to taking things one step at a time, rather than trying to do and achieve everything at once.

I’m an impatient person – my parents often point out that patience is far from being one of my virtues – so I of all people can understand the many frustrations of learning a language.

But before you get carried away with bemoaning your lack of progress, take a look at the Catacombs, or chat to someone like Fabiana. She chooses to see the progress made and not the process still to come. I believe that there was a lesson to be learnt here.

As the saying goes; Rome wasn’t built in a day; and neither was French learnt in a month – but there will be a point, sooner or later, where you step back and realise how far you’ve come.

How patient are you when it comes to learning French? Do you ever get a little frustrated? Let us know in the comments below – we’d love to hear from you!

Proud partner of the Alliance Française Paris Île-de-France.
Image Credits:
1. Alliance Francaise group, © Jill Craig.
2. Map of the Catacombs, drawn by the IGC, via Wikipedia.
3. Fabiana and friend, © Jill Craig.
4. Sign in the Catacombs, by Bryan Allison, via Flickr. 

About the Contributor

Jill Craig

I'm currently a university student in Glasgow, studying a Masters degree in English Literature and French. Soon I’ll be moving to la ville lumière where I’ll become a Paris-based intern! You can find me on Google+ and Twitter.

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  1. Elise Mellor Oct 14, 2014 at 1:06 PM - Reply

    I loved visiting the Catacombs when I was a little kid! I think my parents were wary about taking three kids there (aged 8, 9 and 11) because they thought it might be too spooky… but we thought it was so cool. I remember seeing skulls arranged into the shape of a love-heart and thinking that it was just hilarious.

    I am terribly impatient when it comes to learning anything – French, Spanish, guitar, knitting … I will admit to throwing down my guitar in frustration on more than one occasion. But you’re right, Jill, if you take a moment to look back and say “Two months ago i didn’t know the A string from the E strings, and now I can play half of ‘Champagne Supernova’ ” it helps to keep you encouraged 😀

    • Jill Craig Oct 14, 2014 at 8:22 PM - Reply

      It’s a bit of a vicious circle Elise, the more frustrated you get, the more you berate yourself, and the less you learn. I remember a friend told me that he thought he had made really `sneaky progress` – that at the beginning of the year, he couldn’t really respond or join in with the other footballers in his team when playing a match, but by the end of the year he was shouting encouragement/ harassing other players like a true French man!

  2. Michael Dorman Oct 17, 2014 at 11:39 AM - Reply

    I began learning French in High School when I was 13. I was enthralled by the language and gave it my all as I really wanted to speak it. I also studied German, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. Though French had its difficulties I picked it up faster than say German. Now I am trying to learn Romanian since I have a Skype “video pal” (remember when there were penpals?) but though I found the other romance languages relatively easy, Romanian another romance language, is proving much more difficult than I had expected. It has three genders which makes it closer to its Latin origins in this respect than French or
    Spanish. There are also different endings for nouns and adjectives depending where they appear in a sentence, or whether singular or plural. I mention this just to point out that being motivated to learn languages doesn’t always translate into an easy learning experience. With Romanian I find now that learning different conversational expressions and individual words first was easier then slowly I am adding adjectives to nouns and moving beyond expressions using I (the speaker) and you (the person I am speaking to) to adding “we” and “they” since eventually you have to speak about other third parties. Don’t worry about mistakes and not being able to pronounce like a native. Think about immigrants to your own country and how thick some of the accents are and how bad the grammar but they still get the message across. Practice and time make better and as you find yourself understood more and more and as you understand what you read and hear more and more, the more your linguistic confidence will grow. It takes time. People always are more receptive when you attempt their language and if they happen to know yours and switch to your language. For example, it is the common protocol in France to great owners or workers in small businesses with a “bonjour” and on leaving to say “bonne journee” or “bonne soiree”. These are little things you can pick up while “eavesdropping” in shops and cafes so that sometimes a little light goes on over your head and you are then able to say the same thing.

    • Jill Craig Oct 23, 2014 at 5:03 AM - Reply

      Thank you for such a great message Michael! I especially enjoyed reading about the differences when learning Romanian- I had no idea that there are three genders. When I was told that Cambodian doesn’t have the verb ‘to be’ this really blew my mind- how do you translate the opening phrase of hamlet?!

      And while I agree it’s true to just keep trying with languages and to be forgiving of mistakes, with accents in Paris I found this especially difficult- I think the French are especially proud of their accents (and why shouldn’t they be!), and in Paris especially, very, very critical of accent mistakes from foreign speakers. That said… You just have to laugh about it! Amd keep practising that French ‘rrrrr’!

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