What really stops me from Speaking French?

But, we have always done it this way...

I have been learning French for 5 years now. I have passed the necessary exams that were markers of perceived 'progress'. I have spent hours with my head in a grammar book and even more hours memorising never ending lists of seemingly random 'functional' words. I now have a qualification that says that I am proficient in French.

But what does this actually mean? I go to the job market and I suddenly realise that the world has progressed since the time I put my best foot inside a classroom. I am now competing with French natives for a job here in Ireland. I finally see the meaning behind the phrase 'He is only book smart'.

I meet some French people and we are talking in English. I can't bring myself to speak to them in French. 'I want to say something as simple as where are you from in France?' 'How do I say that again? umm.. what is the second person of the verb to be?' I suddenly realise it is too late the conversation has moved on and I have found out that Amandine is from Dax a quaint touristy town not far from Bordeaux.

Wherever I see people doing something the way it's always been done, the way it's 'supposed' to be done, following the same old trends, well, that's just a big red flag to me to go look somewhere else - Mark Cuban

Some call it 'un cauchemar', I prefer to chalk it up to an experience

I can remember my first stint in France in 2007. I was 18 years old and it was my first time even visiting the south of France. When I landed in Marseille airport I can remember some moments of panic as my co-ordinator failed to show up as I had anticipated.

No doubt it was a break down in communication as my phone calls with her were the first real functional interactions I cam remember having in French.

I ended up spending a night in a hostel and the next day I eventually found my accommodation in Aix-en-Provence, a town located thirty minutes away. At the time I thought that Aix was some district in Marseille.

I was 18 and naive but more importantly I was about to realise that I had spent 6 years learning French without any real understanding of what a functional understanding of French looked like.


It's not personal, muscle memory couldn't care less about your feelings

My second interaction was just as fruitless. As I was watching a rugby match in one of the local pubs in Aix-en-Provence I initiated a conversation with the bar tender who had brought me some free olives with my drink. Initially we were speaking in English and I explained why I was in France. As I got a little more comfortable I tried to switch the conversation to French.

Instead of having some lines spring to mind like 'Where are you from originally ?' or 'Do you like rugby?' my mind was cluttered with grammar rules and verb conjugations. It took me what seemed like an eternity to string together even the most basic of conversations. Eventually I gave up and thought nothing more of it other than I was still a novice in French, even though I had spent 6 years learning it at that point.

Hindsight has allowed me to see that information overload was the problem I was facing. I had spent years learning grammatical rules and verb conjugations with little understanding as to why I was learning French and what it means to learn a foreign language. This approach to learning was the very thing getting in the way of the real time practice that my skillset needed.

When I take the time to inspect my native language I suddenly begin to see that I am 'fluent' but I don't necessarily know as much about the grammar as I do in my foreign language. I speak fluently in English from the many years of real world experience that I have acquired. I have built that muscle memory that I can rely on in real time. I don't have to think twice about stringing together a sentence in English and this is what my French was missing.

You can think of building muscle memory like building muscle when you go to the gym. The more you use the muscle the stronger it gets and the stronger it gets the more intuitive it becomes.

I started to become good at French when I increased my time spent in real time conversations. When I did this I gradually embraced the uncomfortable feelings that go with making mistakes and as I did this I received real time feedback that helped me progress in the language.

Over to you...

Have you been struggling to learn a foreign language? What one thing in your approach are you willing to change today?

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