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Learning to Speak French—My First Breakthrough

When I first had an inkling that I might move to France, I began studying French on Duolingo, a free online app. My discipline involved 20 minutes of study a day, although some days I studied longer because I was engrossed in the exercises.

When I arrived in France in July 2021, I could read-at best—somewhere around the level of a first grader. But I understood very little of the spoken word. The main difficulty was that the written word bore little resemblance to the sound of the spoken word. And even worse, in French, the spoken words slid together so that what I thought of as four or five words ended up sounding like one word.

For instance, as a houseguest, I wanted to tell my host that I was going to bed. After coming up with the vocabulary I needed, I carefully said, “Je vais au lit,” with slight pauses between words.

My French host corrected me, and what I heard was one word: “jevayolee.” This was not at all what I said, even though I spoke all four words in the correct order and, if taken separately, pronounced each one correctly.

But when French words are put together, something magical, almost like jazz, happens. I love the resulting musical sound, even if it makes learning the language that much harder.

The other day, a French friend asked me (in French) if I could tell the difference between the northern and southern French accents. Given the primitive state of my language skills, it was all I could do to keep from laughing at the question. Nonetheless, I could give him an answer: “Non, je connais pas la différence.”

When I settled in France, Attenderella, my daughter-in-law, arranged for a neighbor to tutor me in French. My tutor did the best she could with me, but I was reluctant to speak and embarrass myself. Even so, everyone gave me the same advice: “Just start speaking French, and let people correct you. It’s the only way.”

During this time, I did speak French when no one was around to translate for me—for example, when I had to get a blood test by myself. At the lab, I was able to answer questions about my address, my birthdate, and what I needed. But I was a nervous wreck doing it!

I can shop for groceries more easily by myself now, but I’m never quite comfortable at the checkout stand because I fear the clerk is going to ask me something that I won’t understand.

And sometimes when I’m waiting in line to check out, a French person will start chatting with me. Sometimes I confess to the person (usually a woman) that I do not understand (in French, of course) and that I speak English. But most of the time, I smile and act as if I understand and enjoy the banter. Secretly, I hope my wait ends soon.

I added a second French language teacher in June. Catherine, who is Russian and speaks four languages, gives free French lessons to immigrants at the nearby community center.

When I showed up for the first class, I was eager to meet other immigrants learning French. Alas! I was the only student. Needless to say, I can’t cut class. In the two 90-minute classes I’ve attended so far, Catherine did not allow a word of English, so by the end of each class, I was exhausted. Both times, I went home, threw my French books on the table, and climbed onto my bed to rest.

I was away in July and Catherine will be on vacation in August, so we’ll resume in September. My feelings about restarting are mixed: I’m eager to tell her about my progress and dreading the difficulty of continuing.

And yet, I think I’m making some headway.

Last month I spent some time at Le Grande-Motte, a seacoast resort town about 20 minutes from my home. I wanted time to write, but I also didn’t want to be alone the whole time. Consequently, I invited a stream of family and friends to visit me off and on.

One week, I invited a French couple to spend the day with me, knowing that they spoke very little English. For the three of us, I planned a walk on the beach, lunch at a seaside restaurant, and a swim in the rooftop pool at my apartment.

Chantal and me at the beach
Seaside lunch for three

I should have figured out that I would need to speak French most of the day. But I did not realize what I was getting myself into—which is good, because I would have been too cowardly to try it.

Most amazingly, I did speak French—poorly, I’m sure, but I did speak it. The couple arrived at 10:30 in the morning and left around 6 in the evening. That means I was speaking French over 7 hours, yet I wasn’t exhausted. Moreover, I only realized what I’d accomplished after my guests left.

For sure, much of my French was grammatically incorrect and my pronunciations were mutilated, similar to their attempts at speaking English. Still, we managed to communicate with one another and have a good time.

I still have a steep learning curve ahead of me. But for the first time, I’m excited that I might actually fulfill my dream of speaking French.

In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away at my lessons.