My French Language Journey: 30+ years of the French language


When I arrived in Paris 30 years ago with my French husband, I could barely say a word in French. Little did I know then how my French language journey would pan out. I had taken classes in Boston, but it was impossible. So, basically, I arrived in France and was able to say “bonjour” and a few other pleasantries. That was it.

I immediately went to the Alliance Française to enroll in intensive French classes. I was going every day for morning sessions. It didn’t take long before I was completely overwhelmed and convinced that I would never learn French. At 28, I was the oldest person in the class, and I felt like the stupidest. It also didn’t help that everyone came up to me during the break and wanted to speak English. As a result, I had little chance to practice my French.

On the weekends, we’d see friends of my husband or family, and they always were so interested in how my French was going. I began dreading these situations because I was just so embarrassed. It seemed so easy for everyone else. It was not, for me. I took a break as I was getting overwhelmed. I was a few months into my first pregnancy and although I was doing my best to ignore this fact and continue with life, I was getting tired and I needed to rethink the entire situation. So, after a little break, I decided to return to school but this time I’d do semi-intensive, for just a few afternoons a week. Great decision!

Not all language learning approaches suit

When I joined the semi-intensive class in September, I was happy to discover that it was a small group, and not only that, no one in the class could speak English. I also was lucky to find a new friend. A lovely gal from Italy. She was also pregnant with her first baby and was due the same week as me. We had an immediate bond, and thanks to this, she and I had a lot to talk about.

We couldn’t say much, but we used the French that we had learned in class to communicate with each other to the best of our ability. We didn’t live too far from each other either, so we would even ride the bus home together and chat away. I often wondered what people must have thought listening to us trying to get our sentences out. LOL

The great thing about this time was that because she and I were in the same situation, I felt much less intimidated to try and speak. Before long, although everything seemed to be
coming out backward, at least I was gaining confidence and was more willing to try than I was before. The fear was going away, and my crazy French was just becoming a way of life.

My local shop owners often rolled their eyes when they saw me coming. I got pretty good at asking the same question, in the same way, every single day.

Bonjour, je voudrais deux tranches du jambon — Je voudrais 2 steak hache — Je voudrais un baguette”.

OOPS! I was corrected. It was “Une baguette not Un baguette”. I felt like an idiot! But, guess what? I never forgot it.

Children can help with language learning

My daughter was born in December and I stopped attending French school. I had learned the very basics and would move on from there. I never formally continued my language education from this point. The rest would all be learned from live interaction. It also explains why 34 years later, I can speak very well but if ever I need to write a letter, email, etc.,
I am constantly looking things up. It takes me forever. I never learned the grammar and how to spell. Quite amazing really.

French language journey

Eighteen months later, a sister was born. As I now had two kids in France I was being brought into local life. Both girls attended a little local nursery school and I had no choice but to do my best to communicate with the teachers. It was a struggle and I often felt like a fool but it gave me the push I needed to get moving with the language. With the girls I’d watch many of the children’s programs, I’d take them to see “Guignol” in Les Jardins de Tuileries and even go to story time at the local library. I didn’t understand anything but they loved it. Doing all of this helped me to learn a phrase or two. I’d sing along with them as best as I could and to this day, I know most of the words to all of the jingles. I’m very fluent in “toddler and baby”.

Most people were helpful, and I did end up making one friend who tried her best to help me. Our kids met at school and she lived in my neighborhood. We would spend a lot of time together on the playground and we’d help each other with the kids. It was very nice. As time went on and I got to know her better, I asked her to help me. She’d write down all of the mistakes she’d hear me say, and I would take these lists home and study them. She was very patient, and in hindsight, I now see that this was the true beginning of my integration with the French. I had found a true friend and we would do a lot of things together with our children. I don’t know how she put up with me but she did and before I knew it I was living my life as a local. She also taught me a lot in the kitchen which was a bonus.

Years after all of that…

French language journey

It has been a long time since then, and my French is good, but I don’t think I will ever feel as accomplished with it as I do in English. I have lived in other countries and have also tried to learn Dutch, Italian, and some Arabic. This was more fun as it was a hobby and not a necessity. I would say that through learning new languages, my mind has been opened to different ways of thinking. Also, it helps bring you closer to the culture. When you understand the language, you can appreciate the music, the films, the emotion, and the reason.

Without that, you live in a world of assumptions, and you will never grasp the true feelings of the people and the world where you live. My best advice for learning a language is to take it one day at a time. Of course, it is essential to understand the basic verbs, but once that is done, I think that along with your classes, ask yourself what questions or conversations you need to know daily. For me, it was family and lifestyle. If you cut to the chase with some of those things, it’ll put you out there and make you feel more at home. For example, if you go for coffee or lunch often, learn how to order. Learn all of the vocabulary around that conversation. If you have children and people ask you about them (and they will), learn how to have this conversation, too. This will at least help with daily life and make you feel more comfortable. Whatever you do, don’t get hung up on
the small things. It doesn’t matter. The most important thing is to communicate and exchange with others. So, if it’s “La” and not “Le” don’t worry… don’t let this get in your way.

What changed? My attitude, that’s all!

My life with French changed the day I decided to let all of that go. I still make these mistakes (I’m not proud, and I’m still trying), but it doesn’t get in the way of my ability to speak French.

I have lived in many places, and I always tell my friends that I can order a drink in about five languages. Can I speak all of those? No! It just makes my life easier, and this is something I learned to do over time. I can’t think of a favorite phrase in English, but I do know that “Okay” works in just about every language. So, if you’re struggling with “d’accord” for example, instead just say “Okay, merci“. I promise it works like a charm.

Good luck with your journey. It is well worth it, and one day you’ll look back and won’t know how you got there.


How are you progressing with your language learning journey? Leave your comments below.

Image credits: all images copyright Suzanne Vidal Grosso

Further Reading:
Finesse Your French: a 10-part detailed helpful guide to walk you through your French language journey
How to learn French: 10 strategies
Want to Learn French—Understand your learning style


About the Contributor

Suzanne Vidal

I have a long history with France as I married a French man in 1988 and have 3 dual-national children.  I've lived in different parts of France over the years and I'm currently living in Aix-en-Provence.  I enjoy sharing my experiences and bringing France to life via storytelling.  Read more on my blog or follow me on Instagram @suzannegrossovidal.  À bientôt!

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  1. Karen Bussen May 14, 2024 at 5:19 PM - Reply

    Great piece, love hearing your story! best, Karen

  2. Judy MacMahon May 14, 2024 at 6:02 PM - Reply

    This a a great and inspiring story Suzanne. It’s Important to be honest as you have don as it enables other French language learners realise where they’re at in the journey and how important it is to not given up.
    Thank you for this story. You’re a fabulous storyteller.

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