Let me begin by acknowledging that learning a foreign language, once you have made it past that magical stage as a child when your brain greedily laps up languages like an illicit pre-dinner bowl of chocolate pudding, sucks. Why? Because of the crappy “free gifts with purchase” of impatience, fatigue, and the paralysis inducing need to know “why,” that come with being an adult. Kids don’t require a mind bending explanation of the subtleties of the subjunctive mood. We do.
It doesn’t help that attempting to learn a language as an adult is often dismissed as a luxury or a fool’s errand. If I had a Euro for every time someone incredulously asked, “why” or “is your office requiring that now,” after I inform them I’m taking French lessons, I’d be the proud owner of my own pied `a terre in Paris. Despite this reality, there is nothing I hate more than having my goals scoffed at, particularly by those who probably never had the stones to even try to learn a language as an adult.
It is with that mindset that I began my odyssey to “apprendre le francais” in my 30s. I started 7 years ago by signing up for a “Beginning French Conversation” class at the local junior college. Going to a JC, after having completed my undergraduate education and law school, felt more like a wrong turn at a continuation high school than an institute of higher learning. My class was a rag tag mix of adult Francophiles and those who either registered too late for the class they really wanted, or simply had to sign up for something as a condition of their probation. Our professor, whom we simply called “Madame,” was exactly the kind hearted and patient soul that one would expect to find teaching death row inmates life skills. Despite the fear that my class would at any time erupt into a violent mutiny, I hung on, and even enrolled in French 1, for the college bound. Sadly, I ended up dropping that class within a couple weeks, having realized I had just vigorously cross examined the guy sitting 2 desks away from me in a terrorist threats and assault with a deadly weapon case. Gulp.
With a renewed commitment to my personal safety, I realized if I wanted to be serious about my French, I’d have to take more drastic measures. That’s how I found myself at the Alliance Francaise de San Francisco. Charmed by the impressive class list, the certainty that the expense would weed out those “lacking in commitment,” the tres Parisien underground cafe, and the decidedly Euro feel, I enthusiastically said, “Oui.” In the 70 Saturdays that I spent at AFSF, my French improved by leaps and bounds. Between the San Francisco city-chic and being surrounded by others who nerd out like me to most things French, I was in utter bliss. But, with my heart leading me North, to The Ranch and My Beloved, I knew that my quest for French fluency would require me to be “plus debrouillarde.”
My need to be “more resourceful” immediately led me to the internet. During my search, I managed to reconnect with a former professor from the AFSF who now lives in Amsterdam. Since 2012, we have had a weekly rendezvous via Skype that has kept my French “en forme.” I can say with absolute certainty that the one on one attention I receive has pushed my French past the road blocks I found in group classes. Now, I’m no longer wedged between students that either just don’t get it, or those whose French is so advanced that I feel like an idiot. Mes lecons particulieres with Monsieur Zarhouni are my warm bowl of just right.
In addition to finding my private lessons sur Skype, I stumbled upon Conversation Exchange. It’s a free, easy, and super cool way of meeting native French speakers from all over the world who also happen to want to learn English, with a California accent in my case. All you have to do is create a user name and look for someone who looks cool and is at about your same level of skill. I have found it to be very useful to learn real French and you can’t beat the price of “Free 99.” I have to admit it feels weird at first to speak French with a complete stranger, but in some ways it’s perfect! They don’t know you, you don’t know them, if you sound like a fool, who cares? If things get weird, simply say `A Dieu.
In the end, the most important chapter I had to study in apprendre le francais, was written by moi-meme. It’s titled, “Just Get Over Yourself.” I found that once I let go of my fear of sounding ridiculous and tuned out negative self talk, my French advanced significantly. I stopped cursing the fact that neither one of my parents are Francophones and just got off my ass and put in the work. I’ve resisted the temptation to spend too much time on the “why” of those hideous grammar rules and just accept them, much as I would have if I was 7 again, instead of almost 40.
Don’t let a hate spiral of self doubt get in your way, just par-lay luh-frahn-say! Bon Chance!