HOW DID I LEARN FRENCH?

learning french

“Where there is a will, there is a way.” Recently, when asked the question ‘How did I learn to speak French?” I immediately began describing WHY I learned French. Unless the WHY is strong enough to carry you through the journey of language learning, no method, no matter how scientific, how easy, or how intense will bring you to the desired outcome: fluency.

Here is what happened: My parents decided to take me to Europe when I was eleven years old. We stayed in Nice on the French Riviera for two nights before driving to Venice along the coast. In Nice, we stayed at a very elegant hotel. During that visit, I remember three things in particular. The bellboy kept staring at me which made me very self-conscious. Then I realized, he was staring at the magazine I had in my hands, ‘Mad Magazine’. Secondly, in France, back in the mid-1960s, young girls didn’t wear shorts. When I sported a polka dot green short set for a stroll along the boardwalk, the French ladies would laugh and point as they walked by. Thirdly, while I sat on the beach, watching the volleyball players, sometimes the ball would roll close to my towel. Finally, I picked it up and threw it back to one of the players. When I did so, he shouted out, “Merci, Mademoiselle!” It was the first time I had been called “Mademoiselle.” That made me feel so wonderful, and so adult, not at all like a skinny, shy child in polka dot shorts.

The seed of language learning had been planted: Knowing French would make me a better person. Knowing French might make me feel more womanly as well.

However the seed of motivation did not take root until much later in life, in my twenties, when I decided upon the advice of a family friend to go to Paris and study French at the Sorbonne. Even though Spanish had been my language of choice in high school, I was told that all writers should go to Paris. It seemed like a good idea, and certainly, the two years spent in Paris studying French was my rite of passage into adulthood.

As for the method of study, there’s no substitution for total immersion in French culture with day-to-day exposure to the language. I like to think of it as the ‘sink-or-swim’ method of language learning. For those that do not have the opportunity to reside in a country where French is the major spoken language, total immersion classes are a good alternative. Daily practice is essential for getting your brain ‘thinking in the language’. When you start waking up in the morning with French words dancing in your head, then you are well on your way to acquiring the language.

For me, learning a second language has been a tremendous gift, but it is a gift that needs to be nurtured. If you feel that your language skills are slipping, it’s time to sign up for a refresher class. Each new language you learn is the door to an exciting world with endless possibilities.

Chris Fuller, the author or this article, is a writer, world traveler and language enthusiast, who is currently working on perfecting her Spanish.