My path to learning French

I started to learn French when I was 11. I remember I looked forward to working hard in order to speak it one day. My generation was not forced to learn Russian, the traditional first foreign language in school by that time. I benefited from that historical push when French replaced Russian in schools little by little. That was a major step to get closer to one of the most well known western cultures and languages, which before the World War II, was the main foreign language in Romania.

I still remember the opening day of the new school session, one of the most cheerful moments in school. That meant not only meeting the teachers, but also getting a pile of new schoolbooks, which I was eager to discover and use the entire year. When I got my first French schoolbook I was so excited to browse through it to see what’s in for us. I was simply fascinated by words, sentences and illustrations I have never seen before.

I made a self-commitment to work as hard as possible to master French one day. It was not easy and I am going to share here why by describing some of my steps to learning French. It took me many, many years to be able to speak and write it properly. It did not happen earlier for some reasons and it is no one’s fault, so I would certainly put the blame on me.

The school years in my village were full of discoveries, including the language of Molière. I enjoyed the French lessons and I had the best marks. I learned by heart all language exceptions, grammar rules, vocabulary and everything that was required at school. Translation was always a part of the lessons: translating from Romanian into French and vice-versa. We rarely had the opportunity to speak among each other and the translation was a verbatim exercise putting the French words by following the patterns of our mother tongue. The texts we had to translate were actually full of communist propaganda, written by Romanians for French readers. I do not recall any texts written by French people in a genuine French. I had no opportunity to see any other books in French but the schoolbooks and a modest bilingual dictionary. And no ways to get any TV or Radio show in French.

I left my village to go to high school when I was 14. I was very proud of my achievements in the field of French. I had the best marks ever. The first French lessons in high school were a shock to me. I got my first lowest mark in school for my very poor performance during French lessons. I was not used to that. It scared me since that would have put in danger the entire school year.

I discovered huge gaps in my language knowledge and skills. I tried to work hard to catch up. I managed to get some average marks later on, so I could make it and pass the year. French become a sort of nightmare. I do not complain as I said earlier, all blame is on me, of course, since I was probably unable to do the job properly year by year and the language learning standards were very low in the village.

Year by year I somewhat managed to get on well with my teacher of French, although he was a scary guy, always teasing, cornering and discouraging us. We also studied French literature in the last two years of high school. I enjoyed it, I would say, but the first year with the medieval literature was not something very exciting.

I remember that during an important quarterly written test, which counted for 50 % of the final mark, the subject was something awful. The teacher asked us to write about a minor writer who authored a small book, which, despite all my efforts, I found extremely boring. But again I put the blame on me, I was probably interested to get an overview of that period of French literature history and I did not pay too much attention to the small things. I probably took for granted that the teacher won’t give us such a small subject, as there were many other chapters more relevant and emblematic for the French literature.

What did I do? As I was not familiar with the subject at all, I said I have nothing to lose. I preferred writing something on my own and I did. I remember the day when the teacher entered the classroom with all our little notebooks to discuss the results with us. He kept my notebook to talk about at the end. He was surprised and asked me why I changed the subject. I admitted that I did not know what to write and I tried to write something about my favourite writers. I expected to get penalised with the lowest mark, but surprisingly that did not happen. Actually he considered the text I wrote and marked me properly. I appreciated that, of course, and years later he told me that he saw me as a sort of rebel and he understood that.

My French slept for about 20 years. Other priorities came in. In 2000 I moved to Brussels and believed that I shall be able to survive with my French skills. That was not true. I was unable to use my basic French skills and knowledge in simple situations, like buying a metro card or shopping the basics. I tried to put the right words next to each other’s to make myself understood, but the reactions of French speakers around me were so weird so I gave up for some time.

In Brussels most people take for granted that a Romanian should speak French properly given the fact that French and Romanian belong to a common language family. Well, the story does not end here.

Our first spring in Brussels (in front of the building we lived in for one year, 2001)

Our first spring in Brussels (in front of the building we lived in for one year, 2001)

Little by little I, of course, tried to use my French everywhere outside the office as Brussels is bilingual and the two official languages spoken here are French and Belgian Dutch. English was the main working language in the office. Being so proud of my French I also tried to use it while interacting with my colleagues, French native speakers. They immediately preferred to switch to English, which surprised me.

I remember some funny moments, 13 years ago, when exchanging emails with French speakers. When adding the closing note including the word “merci”, I had a quick run through the “symbols” to place the “ç” in the word “merçi” as I learned it in school. Or as a master of grammar rules, I tried to use “passé simple”, but I saw some discreet smiles around. Until one day when someone told me: Your French is so funny!

OK, I said, time to refresh my French. I bought some books, read them, did daily language exercises, practiced at weekends, watched TV in French and often consulted my French expert at home, my daughter. Little by little I improved my French. That was very important as I needed to interact with the Belgian administration on a regular basis, to prolong our residence and work permit, pay taxes and house charges etc.

I can say that the theoretical aspects I learned in Romania helped me somehow. When I needed to use my French in real life situations my language skills were poor and very limited. I was a sort of prisoner of the translation methodology used by that time in my home country: verbatim translation. That is saying something in French but thinking in Romanian. In other words “speaking” and “writing” in French by following the patterns of the Romanian language.

It was a long struggle to understand that, when communicating in another language, you must convey a message that suits the target language. Its meaning must be adapted to the target language and one should never struggle to have a perfect mirror of the words in his/her mother tongue, but an adapted mirror in the target language. When speaking French, my leading question has been: How would a French put that in French?

I am far from being perfect in French and I believe no non-native speaker can pretend that. Each day I discover new things: I look up idioms and words in dictionaries, I read media in French and I watch TV in French.

Two years ago, for professional reasons, I needed to get a language level certificate for French and I registered with Alliance française. I practiced for about six months before the exam and had a look at the exam methodology on the Web to get some basic info about the exam format and structure. I reviewed grammar structures and vocabulary, did writing and speaking exercises.

The exam was tough. It lasted one day, from nine o’clock to about four o’clock in the afternoon, with small breaks in between. I passed with a better mark than I needed, but I found the exam extremely elitist.

It is hard to say why it took me so long to learn French properly. I actually figured out that when learning a language one should never stop the discovery journey. I understood that feeling the beauty of French and experiencing all the struggles to be able to taste it properly should have started in my early years. How? I believe it would have been easier by setting up a corner labelled “French” in my brain to be able to think in French, when speaking French. A tough but practical endeavour.

More blog entries in English

The Four Seasons of my Earlier Years: The Bitter Taste of My Summers

The Four Seasons of my Earlier Years: My Springs

The Four Seasons of my Earlier Years: Winter Customs and Traditions (1)

The Four Seasons of my Earlier Years: Winter Customs and Traditions (2)

A culture of measuring twice and cutting once: Early years (Part 1)

A culture of measuring twice and cutting once: Early years (Part 2)

How and where to start: The beginning

Articole în română

Glasgow: La porțile nordului

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