Learn to Speak French


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“Why bother learning to speak French? It’s a dying language.”

This was the test question my examiner asked of me for my finals after studying French language and culture at the University of Paris for a whole year. It seemed like too easy a question for a final exam – but I’ve often noted that examiners love to give students questions including just enough rope to hang themselves.

Because this coming week (until March 24th’08) is ‘French language’ week, I thought it might be helpful to talk about the benefits of studying French for any readers who are considering ‘Junior Year Abroad’ programs in France, or if you find yourself at a crossroads in life and you’re thinking about spending a few months in France to study the language.

My answer to the examiner was simple. French, along with English was the official language of the United Nations (at the time of the exam). The history of the French and English languages is inextricably interwoven ever since William the Conqueror crossed the Channel from Normandy to England in 1066. For hundreds of years French was the official language spoken at the English royal court. It is still considered a sign of good education (in England) to be conversant in French. Perhaps the last American first lady to speak French with flair was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The only French word I’ve heard Hillary Clinton pronounce during her visit as a first lady was ‘Merci’ in the Rodin Garden (when asked by journalists to say something in French).

On a more practical level, being able to communicate in French has been helpful, not only in France, but in our travels throughout Africa. Morocco, Mali, Senegal, Madagascar are some of the countries where French has come in handy. If you plan on traveling in parts of Canada’s Quebec province, you’ll find that being bilingual is a necessity.

One foreign student in Paris described English as the language of business and French as the language of politics and diplomacy. I would take that one step further and say that language is politics. By promoting one’s national language one is also promoting the nation’s world influence. If this is the case, France’s ‘language week’ might also be considered part of the its new image as one of the ‘movers and shakers’ on the Continent.

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Learning to speak French has changed my life in too many ways to list in one short blog.

For anyone who loves words and conversation, you’ll find that conversation in France is an active sport. Many people start their day with a radio talk show and these are the topics that engender conversation at lunch and dinner. People caress one another with words or they slap you on both cheeks. They say goodbye to you after a dinner engagement and when you get to the ‘hope to see you again’ part the pertly pronounced ‘peut-etre’ means most definitely, ‘Never.’ If you like direct talk, you won’t like French. It’s a martial art, a sculpture class and mathematical formula wrapped up into one.

Past campaigns to shut out words like ’weekend’ have fallen by the wayside as the barrage of computer terms, slam, and advertising logos have been absorbed and morphed into slightly different meanings. When an English word like ‘challenge’ makes it into everyday French language, I’m always delighted. The closest word I could find for ‘challenge’ was ‘defi’ but it never seemed quite right. Meanwhile other new French/English meldings like ‘people’ and ‘peoplisation’ have taken on a level of disdain that needs to be savored along with your ‘aperatif’. Never was the gap between ‘les peoples’ and ‘le peuple’ so wide. It’s not revolution – it’s revulsion at its best.

Today’s story in Le Parisien (Patrimoine
Mais si, la langue française se porte bien
14.03.08 | 05:00) stating that the ‘French language is going like gangbusters’ is true. Come to France. Learn to speak French and your life will be all the more richer for it.

Take the ‘challenge’:

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La Sorbonne

Coordinating with educational programs in your home country can be useful to avoid some of the hassles and red tape involved with applying to a language school once you’re in Paris. Add to that, the task of finding housing, you may want to consider some of the following options for planning your school program in Paris:

AIFS Abroad Summer

GSE Abroad offers programs with transferable credits at The Sorbonne and other schools in Paris including The American Business School.

As a graduate of the Cours de Langue et Civilisation Francaises, I can definitely recommend it for a useful foundation that will aid you for years to come. The Alliance Francaise is also very helpful for students of all ages.


6 thoughts on “Learn to Speak French

  • Mary

    What an interesting article! I agree, learning French, learning any language, is a way to “get into” the culture, the people, the pulse of a place. It works the brain too, and it’s fun.

    By the way, French is not a “must” in Quebec, unless you intend living there. I have been in Montreal many times in the last two years; I managed quite well in English, however, I took advantage of the opportunity to dust off my rusty French learned 50 years ago! And the French were most accommodating. They switched to English, but were patient in reverting to French, if I chose.

    French conversation is an “active sport”. How true! Speaking French will wake up the passion within you. Forget about “politically correct”! I love it.

    Most curious to know how French changed your life.

  • Jessica Sztaimberg

    Learning French, or any language for that matter, is very commendable! It takes time, practice, patience, courage, and lots of mistakes! However, the feeling of being able to converse in another language is completely indescribable- although I will try. It gives you a sense of accomplishment when you are understood while speaking another language. When you can fully understand what others are saying, it is just so rewarding! It was great to watch a movie in Spanish the other day, and understand it! It’s a real confidence booster to learn a new language, and it will definitely lead to many great opportunities. Like you mentioned- the great thing about it is you can travel to other locations where that language is spoken- I even understand a lot of Italian in Italy because of my understanding of Spanish. It has opened up many doors, for me, and I am very happy for that!

  • Parisgirl Post author

    Thanks for sharing your views on learning a second language. Because so many people speak English, it’s easy to rationalize, saying why should I bother going through all the hard work of learning a second language when there’s a pretty good chance I’ll eventually find someone who can speak English? The beauty of learning a second language – in addition to getting a whole new perspective on the world – is that wonderful feeling of accomplishment – because it is an accomplishment. As one French friend said recently, those colleagues who didn’t know a second language were much less likely to travel and much less likely to feel at ease in countries where they didn’t know the language.

  • Jessica Sztaimberg

    Yes, I absolutely agree that knowing the language in another country makes you feel comfortable. Being able to understand what is being said around me, and being able to contribute to the conversation definitely puts me at ease when abroad. Also, being able to find someone to speak to in English doesn’t mean that I am going to get the same experience as if I was speaking to them in their native language. I have had many conversations in English with a Burmese man, whose level of English was elementary. We could understand each other quite well, but when it came to certain topics, it was not so easy. Trying to explain Buddhism was a bit hard. There were many concepts he wanted to explain, but said he couldn’t, because he did not know how to express them in English. It was unfortunate, but this language barrier did stop us from having a complete conversation. I could get the general concept he was talking about, but sometimes he just did not know the words he wanted to use, and gave up.

    So knowing how to speak the language in another country is going to help you immensely. You will have such a different experience this way, and it’s a great feeling!

  • Parisgirl Post author

    Even if you may not know the language of the country you’re visiting, travelers who have a second language under their belt tend to be less intimidated when they visit a non-English speaking country. They know that they will find some way of communicating, having already gone through the process of learning to read facial expressions and body language when you can’t depend on the words making sense.

    Regarding your conversation with the Burmese man who wanted to talk to you about Buddhist concepts – even in English – that could have been a challenge!

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