Thursday, February 16, 2017

Squishing Through French Class

I am now fluent in French.
Okay, not quite. One course does not a linguist make.
However, I now have confidence that I can become fluent - with steady effort over the coming weeks, months, years.
I've been in the French-speaking part of Switzerland and France for about three years, and I have picked up enough French along the way to be semi-functional. For example, I can order in a restaurant and buy things at la boulangerie, la charcuterie, and la fruitière. I won't starve. But the language always seemed to me rather random. I knew snippets but I had little idea how any of them fit together. I did not understand the structure of the language. Verb tenses. Prepositions. Gender. The construction of a sentence (which can sometimes seem backwards).
Despite being a writer, I think along logical lines. I like to understand how things work, the history of how it got that way. I realize, even with rules, there are exceptions in French. Hell, the English language is probably far worse for ignoring its own rules. (And when I'm writing, I like that - including options such as the Oxford comma.)
If I am to become a Swiss citizen, I must become fluent in one of the four national languages. So Donna-Lane encouraged me to enroll in an intensive two-week course at l'Université de Gèneve. They sent me a timed online test to determine at what level to place me, but I struggled with the questions, so I opted to take the A-1.1 beginner course, seeking a proper foundation.
D-L encouraged me with a drawing. I packed up my pain au chocolat, une banane, une bouteille de l'eau, et un livre des verbes, and flowed into the slow-moving morning rush traffic.

The 12-person class was truly international, befitting Gèneve as a United Nations-focused city. A young woman from Finland who has a 7-month-old baby, a soft-spoken 40-something man also from Finland, a woman in her late 60s from Serbia, a 21-year-old Pakistani woman whose French accent is quite good from the get-go, a quiet young man from New Zealand and a confident giant from Sweden (both of whom stopped showing up the 2nd week - perhaps they transferred to a more advanced course), Islam from Kosovo, Nicholas from Brazil whose mother is Japanese, a 25-year-old woman from Colorado by way of Oregon with tattoos and a lip ring, a 71-year-old gent from Missouri who spends part of each year in Thailand, and the wife of a Russian diplomat. The latter would be an answer to one of the questions I once had to answer for a Secret government clearance - "List all contacts with foreign nationals from Iron Curtain countries." By the way, most of these folks are already bilingual - their native language plus English - and some are trilingual.

The teacher was Swiss by way of Belgium, France, and born in Africa. Her pronunciation was excellent (as was my first semi-private teacher in Argèles sur Mer). One of Dominique's techniques is to assemble the group in a circle, where we would toss a large soft squishy ball (with googly eyes, Karrie). The person to whom the ball was tossed would have to use the next French word or sentence in sequence: un, deux, trois ... As the questions got progressively more difficult through the course, some of us came to regard it as the balle du terreur.
Some of the material I already knew, especially a fair bit of vocabulary. But when I'd get a little smug as some of the others struggled (most with far less exposure to French than me), it would come my turn, and I too would stumble to force my brain and mouth to work in sync.

At the end of the first week, the middle of the course, the eureka! moment struck, and I realized there is indeed a strong order to le français. For the first time, it was starting to make sense. I can do this.

I am fully aware I have a long, long way to go. I will need to be diligent in working at the language daily. Not easy, as so many of our social and work contacts are Anglophones, even in France. I will look into taking additional formal courses, whether in Gèneve or the south of France when we are in Argèles.D-L and I will begin to converse more often in French at home.

So I got the certificate. Step one. More important, I established a foundation for further learning.

À soixante-cinq ans, pas mal.

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