When Natasha Alexander moved to Normandy in northern France with her husband and three children, her French was about at the level where she could ask for a ham sandwich. So with a business to run and children in school she had to learn the language fast. Here are her top tips for other learners.
1. Talk rubbish
Literally. We invited our lovely, lovely neighbours over for drinks at Christmas – this was painful as at times there were awkward silences.
The chit chat became so banal that I even asked what days the rubbish bins go out. They must be thrilled with the newbies in town! General chit chat and boring chit chat at that but it does get better and you really have to launch yourself out of your comfort zone. It is far easier to put this off until your French is better. But guess what? Your French won’t get better unless you just invite yourself in to unsuspecting French people’s homes. Try and do this at least once a month.
2. Engage in conversation at all costs
Don’t just get your bread, queue up at the supermarket, say thank you and go. Try and engage in conversation at all costs. For instance, the children’s head teacher has spoken to me a few times. Initially I was like 'yes, yes' and would scurry away. But as time went on I would speak back to him. For instance, my eldest two are being put in for a French exam a bit like a diploma so it shows they have a good standard of French. He told me about this and then instead of just saying okay, I understand, I repeated back to him what he’d said.
He’ll also ask if I’ve understood flyers etc and last term I remarked that it had been a very long term and that the children were tired. Same goes for the boulangerie. Comment on the weather, cakes – anything!
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Waste collections may not make the most fascinating conversation topic, bu it's all good practice. Photo: AFP
3. Make phone calls
Now so many people say 'Oh my French isn’t good enough to use the phone'. It’s probably not good enough out in general public. Why do people think the phone is in someway harder? At least you can have Google translate open. Seriously, you have to make phone calls.
There’s something about making a phone call which makes people go all 'I can’t, I won’t'. But the more you make them the easier it will become or certainly the apprehension of making them. I have used the phone lots of times. Yes, I could have taken the easy option and just trotted down to the garage to see if my car was ready – but no I phoned to see first. I’ve phoned dentists, delivery drivers, doctors, schools, garage, MOT centres and more and it’s not easy but just man up, grow a pair and do it!
4. Don’t hang up on the cold callers
This sounds really perverted but bear with. These people speak super fast much like they would in the UK because they don’t want you to figure out, quickly, that it’s a cold call trying to sell you something. So I keep these bad boys on the phone.
I get them to slow down, repeat what they’re saying and ask questions. They are naturally obliging because they want the sale. They have no idea they are in some perverse French lesson and then at the end you can just say non merci. And when they ask why, just say I don’t speak very good French. They will then hang up on you. A free five-minute French lesson.
5. Endure Celine Dion on repeat
I like to have the radio on when I’m cleaning or when the kids are at school just to hear French being spoken. It’s not as cruel a way to learn the language as watching the telly but it can be right up there depending on what station you listen to.
Now, my daughter likes NRJ which has all the funky songs, however, you won’t get much chat with that. You could go all culture vulture and plump for the station of the same name but even by my standards this is akin to self harm and not recommended.
Or you can plump for France Bleu – you will have to tolerate a lot of Celine Dion, Pink and listen to one song by Adele (she wrote others!) but you will get a lot of chit chat, tips on cooking and game play. You will have to endure the Celtic hour which goes on for a long time (longer than an hour I’m sure) and wonder why they are obsessed with Brittany.
L'amour est dans le Pré is one of many, er, highlights of french TV. Photo M6
6. Watch French farmers trying to find a date
Channel Four do a great range of world drama series and many are with French with subtitles. This is a great way to learn and not as painful as the television route, although there are some good programmes.
We watched one box set called Vanished by the Lake. We overlooked the fact that the detective was pretty poor – thinking it was everyone including her mother and dead father. It was a real Cluedo, a whodunnit and was set in beautiful surroundings. We are going to work our way through them. I also make notes if I find a word or saying for instance.
As for the telly. It’s not so bad. They have game shows where you have to guess the couple, local news and my all time favourite TV show L'amour est dans le Pré (Love in the Meadow). They get farmers to hook up with singletons for a week. They stay with them, sleep with them and its compelling television. Honest.
7. Find a French friend
Yes, even if they don’t want to be your friend just nab them. Naturally it helps if you like them, I have a mum friend and I just know we would get along fine and dandy if I was fluent. So I invited her round for coffee, have picked her up en route for a school meeting and we always wave and say hello and I get her to help me with my French. We had great fun getting me to pronounce the word brouillard (fog). Fine but let’s see if she can say squirrel . . .
8. Take lessons
Call me old fashioned but there’s nothing quite like having a lesson once in a while.