Learning a new language is hard and humbling. If you’re taking intensive french classes 5 days a week, you might as well be back in primary school so be prepared to regress.
You start off expressing yourself like a six year old if you’re lucky as you struggle to articulate simple thoughts with the tiny blocks of language you’ve acquired. Kid-like insecurities long forgotten since Mrs. Smith’s 5th grade class surface. You hope no one laughs at you. You just want to be understood.
In my first 8 week French course we were eleven students coming from seven different counties.
We learned some adjectives, some verbs and some pronouns and then struggled to communicate with each other in French before and after class as well as during our coffee break. There were more Spanish speakers and they teased me that I would learn Spanish before I would learn French. “Si”! I had said. For the most part though we tried to speak French. Throughout the two years that I took semi-intensive and intensive classes, we always spoke French together, even when we were barely able to, and even when at times there was a dominant common language, because there would always be someone for whom it wasn’t. That’s how you learn a language by the necessity of communication and a need to be social.
The intensive French courses turned over every 4 weeks. That meant there were new people joining while others departed. It meant I had the opportunity to meet more than 70 other students over the course of two years. I tried hard not to laugh during many first day introductions when I heard a “je m’appelle Sean or Steve” in a strong Canadian accent. Secretly I was always happy to have another Canadian or American in the class. Our accents are the worst! My heavy accent is something that I struggle with and I was always happy to have a compatriot in terrible pronunciation. Needless to say, I loved the American who would thank you with a “mercy”.
French is the 5th most spoken language in the world, after English, Mandarin, Hindi and Spanish. Interestingly it falls way down the list when you consider only native speakers. That means the majority of French speakers learn “the language of love” as a second language. The majority of my classmates were learning the language for love. Not for love of the language but for the love of some guy or some gal. There were many who came for work, and a few who came for asylum but what brought most of my classmates to Switzerland was l’amour.
In Switzerland just under 23% of the population speak French as their primary language. However while the other official Swiss languages have seen a decline since 1970, the number of people declaring French as their principal language has actually increased, according to the Federal Statistical Office of Switzerland.
There are now a higher percentage of French speakers in Switzerland than there were in 1970. I like to think that while my cohorts and I may be contributing to the dramatic rise in other principal languages being spoken in Switzerland we’re also contributing to the increase in French speakers. It is after all the language of love.
My one constant classmate over the course of 9 months was an athletic young man from Serbia with a sweet spirit and passion for football that may have from time to time bordered a religious realm. He had married a woman from Geneva a month earlier and had just arrived in the city. He insisted that learning languages was nearly impossible for him. As he only spoke Serb, French was the common language he shared with us all but because he lacked confidence he was reduced to communicating mono-syllabically or by nodding his head. Most often he just smiled.
After three months our teacher had had enough and decided he was going to start speaking French and she going to be the one to make him talk. Each day she would ask him for a story. This would become “l’histoire du jour” as each day he told us a story from his life en français, s’il te plaît. He progressed in leaps after that and by the end, while he wasn’t fluent, if you were discussing “le foot” he would speak effortlessly . After all, we speak to tell stories. It is an amazing moment when you recount a story for the first time and you realise people can actually understand you despite your heavy accent and your badly conjugated verbs. The first time you make people laugh in another language is a giddy high. And he did make us laugh.
Learning a language is like starting all over again. You learn to tell your stories with the language you have available. Your limitations make you feel helpless and it’s scary and frustrating to not be understood. On the other hand there is the same childlike excitement of learning to use language to be subversive, or to tell a joke and there are the satisfactions of being understood, of forming friendships and of sharing secrets.
My 6 year old neighbour ran up to me bursting with excitement one day after school. “Madame”, he asked me. “How do you say TPG backwards?” (You may or may not know that TPG is the name of the local transit.) The answer is (do you know where I’m going with this?) GPT or j’ai pété…. I farted. He had just learned this at school and thought it was most hilarious joke ever. I understood his excitement. Like him I couldn’t wait to try it out at school the next day. Vive la langue Française.
"A different language is a different vision of life." - Federico Fellini