Learning a language is a process. A very long, ongoing process. There are ups and downs and it’s been anything but linear for me. Even though I’ve lived in France for about 5-1/2 years now, I don’t speak French perfectly. For anyone who has studied a foreign language, that won’t come as a shock. You don’t just pick up a language to the point of perfection by osmosis simply by being in one of the countries where it’s spoken.
What has happened is I’ve majorly improved and speak at an advanced level at this point. But I still learn something new daily. So much of how you progress is within your control and you can make major improvements no matter your current level. I’ve increased my vocabulary and over time have become so much more confident when speaking to new people. I’ve majorly improved my comprehension, which was one of the most difficult things for me when I first arrived.
But then there’s the other side of the spectrum. This post is the one where I tell all about the 5 things that still give me major difficulty in French.
5 Things that still give me trouble in French
If you’re new here, I’ve lived in France for about 5 1/2 years. I studied basic French in high school and then picked it up again several years later at the Alliance Francaise just for fun. I was at an intermediate level when I first moved to France to teach English as a language assistant outside of Paris. You can read more about my story here.
So many factors play into how well you’ll pick up a language and one of the most important is your level of motivation. You get out what you put in, as with most things in life.
Let’s go back in time for a second. Before moving here, I was under the impression that within a year I’d pretty much speak like my native French speaker husband Tom, or pretty close to it, just with an accent.
Ohhhhh, how wrong I was.
Now I laugh at how naive that line of thinking was. I don’t think I’ll ever get to a near-native level, if we’re being honest, but I still have hope that I can get pretty close with some major effort and motivation. Sometimes I feel that being good enough is enough. Other times I get mad at my lack of motivation.
Time to get real, guys. Here’s some inside scoop about me. I have a habit of trying to be a perfectionist (although I’ve majorly simmered down on that front in the past couple of years). I wanted to be REALLY FRICKIN’ GOOD at French and once I realized I would never be “perfect,” I’d cycle through periods of not even wanting to try to improve since it all wasn’t going to my silly “let’s be perfect” plan. My plan was ridiculous because being perfect changes nothing.
Tom speaks ridiculously good English — I think he’s perfect — but from time to time, he says something kind of strange or mispronounces a word or doesn’t know a word. It’s normal. In my mind, he speaks “perfect English” so why the heck was I so hard on myself?
I’ve let go of most of my perfectionist tendencies in French because they were crippling me, but I still tend to be hard on myself.
I tend to exaggerate about how bad I am at things when really it’s not the case.
After 5 years, I speak at an advanced level, and while I make mistakes, I have no problem talking to anyone about pretty much anything.
That’s the reality.
If I really put my head down and studied French daily, I’m sure I could clean up a lot of the stupid mistakes I make. Sounds like a good plan… Sometimes I really regret studying Irish in college. DOH!
Let it go
Learning a language is harder than you think, and these days, I’ve finally learned to give myself grace. What’s the point of beating yourself up all the time? It won’t help anything.
I don’t know.
One of the mistakes I made when I first got here was that I tried to save face a lot. I’d as Tom to be the one to make tricky phone calls. I’d have him speak for me.
No one wants to come across as stupid, but some people are more chill about looking like a fool publicly.
My refusal to just jump in head first did nothing to help my French. I realized I’d need to just stop caring about the mistakes and push forward.
I used to feel more embarrassed when I’d make mistakes in French, but now I just let it roll off my back because it’s a fact of life as a foreigner living in France. Even if I do you speak French at an advanced level, mistakes are normal. It’s No Big Deal.
If you’re planning on spending a significant amount of time in France or even living here, start learning French now. That’s the best advice I can give you. Do whatever you can to motivate yourself and get practice speaking. It is not possible to live here comfortably and integrate without at least an intermediate level of French. That bears repeating.
Another fact? Your age and current level do not matter. Anyone can make serious progress.
I highly recommend Lingoda for learning French and wrote about it here.
Even once you get to a decent level, you’ll have good days and bad. I used to really let the bad days get me down. These days, I try to laugh at my mistakes and remind myself that this is a process and to look at how far I’ve come. There are worse things in life. 😉
Here are 5 things that still give me trouble in French:
1. French sentence construction
As a native English speaker, my default is to form sentences the way I would in English. Even if I’m speaking in French, some very English sounding sentences pop out of my mouth now and then. Most of the time, it’s totally fine and doesn’t affect comprehension. But is it the most natural? Not always.
Let me give you an example. If I wanted to express something like “he has to come to the party” I might literally say he has to come to the party il doit venir à la fête. In French, you can say it like that but there’s an equally natural way to express the same thing (some might argue it’s even more natural), which would be “Il faut qu’il vienne.” So literally “it’s necessary that he come.” This uses the subjunctive of the verb venir (to come).
I know the subjunctive. It’s just that in the moment, my brain defaults to the sentence construction that I’ve known my whole life — English. To say “it’s necessary” sounds way more formal and serious to me.
To be clear, it’s not that my first version wouldn’t be understood. It would be — it’s perfectly correct — but the “il faut que” construction would be equally natural even though to me, it’s not the first thing that pops into my head. Things like that always take me an extra second to think to myself, “How would Tom say this?”
Do any of you out there have another example of where your default is to phrase something as more of a literal English translation when another type of sentence construction might be more natural? Would love to hear in the comments!
2. Specialized vocabulary
I think it would take me 10 lifetimes to learn an entire French dictionary. Sometimes it’s funny when people ask if you speak French and you say yes, and to them, yes means you speak the language like a native speaker would, with their vocabulary and everything. They speak to you just like a native speaker would, and that’s great, but they don’t realize that you just don’t know everything yet (and may never). There’s no gray area like “speaks French well but doesn’t know every word under the sun.”
By no means do you need to know every word in the dictionary, but it’s easy to feel at a loss when a French conversation turns to something specific and uses very detailed vocabulary. Then in other instances, I’ll know totally random words and not the simplest ones (or am at a loss in the moment to remember them).
For example, we just spent a weekend in the Charente-Maritime and I learned all types of words in the context of marshland and marine biology. I’ll probably never need them again, but they’re good to know. Words like une digue (seawall) and un byssus (special filaments a mussel uses to attach to a solid surface).
When conversations get specific and I realize I don’t have the vocabulary I need to accurately express something, my first response is to mentally chuckle to myself. Sometimes I don’t know everyday words but I sure know how to say the completely useless byssus or veterinary terms and could accurately tell you about how a mussel digests plankton.
So what do I do? I apologize and tell people in the moment that I don’t know what a word means if it’s central to following the conversation and they explain it to me. Or when it’s not worth the effort, I just nod and smile and bust out Oui, c’est vrai que… and let it trail off like French people do, not really saying anything at all. No big deal, but I secretly want to say, “Hey, I’m not dumb. I know what a byssus is if it’s any consolation!” Time to start picking up le dictionnaire again every night after dinner…
3. The politeness and formality in written correspondence
I don’t send anything official without having Tom look at it. It seems that cover letters and all official letters need to be written in a way that seems kind of patronizing. The level of formality just seems over the top to my American sensibilities.
Take, for example, the way you’d say “yours sincerely” when closing a letter. In French, you’d say “Je vous prie de croire, Monsieur/Madame, à l’assurance de ma consideration distinguée…” which sounds a little silly to me. Distinguished esteem, what? Who are we writing to, the president???
David Jaggard wrote about the same thing over at Paris Update and gives us the English translation of a letter he received from his electric company. Here’s a portion so you can see what I mean about formality:
“Within the framework of the organization of the energy sector, the managing bodies responsible for the public distribution networks, [name of company] for electricity and [name of company] for natural gas, are entrusted, in particular, with the mission of guaranteeing the monitoring of your consumption indices at least once per calendar year. These indices are then transmitted, in view of invoicing, to the electrical and/or natural gas supplier or suppliers that you have selected and with which you have concluded a contract. To this end, we have entrusted [name of third company] to proceed with the inspection of your meters. We thank you in advance for having the kindness to afford access to your domicile on the date indicated below.”
Bahahahaha. There are a whole lot of words to basically say the meter man is coming. That was just part of the first paragraph. Waste of paper maybe? If I got a letter phrased like that in the US, I’d think my neighbor was pranking me. So my no fluff, to-the-point emails need Tom (every single time) to French them up a bit.
4. The pendant/depuis/pour nonsense
Do you have any mental blocks? You know, when you have studied something a bunch of times and feel like you have a handle on it just to forget what you learned a few weeks later? For me, there are a bunch of things in French that I know but still mess up. Enter the translation of the English word “for.” It’s not so easy!
Sometimes it’s super clear when to use pendant/depuis/pour, but other times, it’s a total crap shoot.
Yes depuis can mean since but it can also translate as “for.” J’habite en France depuis 2012. I’ve lived/been living in France since 2012. Good, that usage is one I never mess up. J’ai habité en France pendant 5 ans. I lived in France for 5 years. Good. J’habite en France depuis 5 ans. I’ve lived/been living in France for 5 years. This is the one I mess up half the time because our friend depuis can also translate as for! You may have noticed this same issue in reverse with French speakers who mistakenly say “since” in English where they mean “for” and say something like “I’ve lived in the USA since 2 years.” No matter how many times I ask Tom to clarify, I’ll still mess this up about half the time and it’s usually a mistake with pendant.
Another example. He’s out of the office for the day / Il est absent du bureau pour la journée. Pour is usually pretty straightforward.
It’s no big deal because the person you’re talking to will understand what you mean, but dang, I think it’s time I consistently get this one right! If anyone out there has a good trick or tip on how to keep these straight, I’m all ears!
5. TV shows/movies with fast slang and technical talk
Even in English, certain TV shows or movies get crazy technical, so imagine how Criminal Minds‘ vocab would sound in French to someone who has no clue about things like psychological profiling and crime scene terms in French. When a plot gets too complicated for my liking, I’m embarrassed to say I turn it off after about 10 minutes. That also goes for anything with a ton of slang or talk shows where several people talk over each other at lightning speed.
It’s just frustrating to sit there not really understanding what’s going on. Trust me, I’m sure it would do me a world of good to just push through it, but when you’re not understanding something, it’s hard to want to continue what feels like a waste of time. I’m working on it though. 😉 To make me feel better, Tom says that even at his level in English, he still doesn’t understand 100% of every show or movie he watches — but I don’t believe him!
What gives you trouble in French or another foreign language? I’d love to hear from my French readers about what they find difficult in English!
Have a wonderful rest of your weekend!!