Long before I even knew it was possible that I would ever live in France, I had a desire to learn the French language. I was at the top of my French class for two years in High School, so I had a positive association with it. Besides, it seemed that my bilingual friends all had more fun. So, when I actually knew I was moving to France, I was looking forward to the language experience. Was.
I told myself that my priority would be language learning. I intended to take as many lessons as I could throughout the week. I even started before I left, taking some lessons with a friend and using online resources like Duolingo. Once I got to France, though, I was faced with an unanticipated reality.
Obstacle #1: Location
My French-born bestie back home had filled my head with ideas of free French lessons designed to help immigrants fit in. Having taught in a Continuing Ed program at a college, I had preconceptions of free daily classes taught by entertaining teachers. I loved the idea because I learn better in groups. Unfortunately, the reality was that I was way too far away from any such program, living in the country as I was. And having just arrived, I was nowhere near tapped into life here to know what was available. However, eventually, as luck would have it, I found affordable group French lessons once a week in the closest town fifteen minutes away. What a godsend! The teacher was a Brit with dramatic flair and fabulous sense of humor. I was so bewildered and homesick at that time, it was always a delight to go to class and remember how to laugh. I also made friends with a couple of native speakers and had some lessons that way, but it was far too easy to succumb to speaking English instead.
Eventually, other classes surfaced nearby. Of course, they weren’t free, but they weren’t wickedly expensive either. Some of them were better than others. I ended up quitting one class even after purchasing an pricey book because it was just too slow for me (hard to imagine!) and the content seemed far too touristy. About six months in, I eventually learned of a program for which I qualified through the French unemployment bureau. I signed up but never heard anything back. With some persistence, I did finally manage to re-enroll after several more months. The class only met once a week, but it was free, and it was all morning long, but for a while, I was the only student. This had advantages and disadvantages: the positive was individualized attention; that also happens to be the negative. This situation eventually morphed into two classes a week, both mornings and afternoons. Now sometimes, there are other students, but usually it is just me.
Obstacle #2: Stuffed!
I was so excited that I’d be going to classes twice every week for the entire day. Was. Quickly, I began to realize three things: 1) I hated waking up at 7AM 2) I hated having a two-hour lunch break with nowhere to go and 3) there was no room in my poor brain after 2.5 hours of French, let alone 6! Maybe immersion is the way to go for some people. I can’t think of a bigger nightmare. I get so flippin’ exhausted! I can’t imagine being in it all day every day. Maybe it’s because I’m introverted; I need to be alone with my thoughts. At any rate, more is not necessarily better! When there were other students, I could get a lot more out of the day. When I’m on my own though, it’s quite difficult because of the intensity…and frustrating too because what I need most is conversation with others.
Obstacle #3: STRESS!!!
I know that stress has a huge role to play in one’s ability to learn a language…or anything else for that matter. Fact is, settling into a new country is a stressful endeavor. When you are worried about figuring out why there’s a problem at your bank or about whether or not some important piece of paper has been lost or processed, it leaves less room for new stuff. When class rolled around, some days, my mind would be on other things making it very difficult to pull up the words I needed. This had no end of negative impact on my self-confidence and sense of self as a highly intelligent, capable person with a love for learning. In fact, I increasingly felt as though I was living through the eyes of my fragile special needs students back home. I had a sense of what my brain was supposed to be doing, but it just wouldn’t cooperate, making me feel like a failure. When I had a medical emergency last year, I couldn’t say anything but “merci” at the hospital. The doctor was a real prick about it too, making fun of me. (He inspired the above T-shirt!…though it is mostly me who has to get over it!) Believe me, having a crowd of nurses and doctors over your head saying things you don’t understand while they do whatever they want with you is sufficiently nerve-wracking to affect one’s ability to communicate anything!
Obstacle #3: Priority
Even though I came here with learning French as my priority, the fact is, other things took over…important things…like my mental health. I had to battle growing anxiety; there were many relationship problems and bureaucratic obstacles to work on too. I needed time for making friends and other things that were actually enjoyable to me just to keep myself sane. Then I realized I had to get going with my business, promoting, networking, writing, painting… I had to keep some semblance of life going because I was falling into despair. Finding myself and my happiness became my priority. French was just another unpleasant but necessary task I had to do every week. I felt some guilt over this. How dare I come live in a country and NOT make the language my priority? But life was happening, and if I wasn’t careful, I would end up sick, tired, and even more depressed than I already felt.
Obstacle #4: Motivation
I am not married to a French-speaker. I’m married to a Brit who barely speaks French himself. So, we don’t use any French in the house. It’s a definite handicap. In addition, this region is absolutely crawling with English-speakers. I’m glad, actually, because it is saving my life. But at the same time, it sure doesn’t motivate me to learn more French. I realize it will ultimately shrink my life to the size of a peanut if I don’t learn, but for now, while I’m still just trying to acclimate and be at peace, I’m not terribly motivated to push. In my life, there have been many things I wanted to learn…how to play guitar (abandoned), karate (abandoned), reading music (abandoned), Chinese (abandoned)… Who knows why we both decide to pick something up and why we eventually put it back down again? If I stay in France, obviously abandoning French won’t be an option. But to be honest, it is one of the biggest reasons I want to leave!
Obstacle #5: Plateaus
As my current French teacher has pointed out, I’m a person who is used to having the ability to express herself in complex ways. I can’t do that in French. It is extremely frustrating. I have no interest in small talk, the weather… every day life, so to speak. I want to talk philosophy. I want to get complex! Alas, I have to contend myself with the mundane. There are just so many words I don’t know. I know what I want to say, but as I think how to say it in my head, I never know where to begin and everything just freezes. If I don’t know the first word, I suddenly don’t know anything. It is easy to fall into this idea that I’ve hit some kind of learning plateau in my first year… a plateau I’ll never get over. If I think back to how much French I knew last year at this time, I really have made progress. However, for whatever reason, on some days, I seem to forget everything! I’m not sure if it is because I’ve fooled my teachers into thinking I understand more than I do (I’m very good at not really knowing what anyone is saying but using context to figure it out), or if it is simply my almost 50-year old brain straining to remember things.
I know that a lot of people here give up learning the language. They feel it is too difficult and don’t feel they ever make any progress. I think I myself am going to have to fight those feelings. I’m not ready to give up yet. I might never be fluent, but it would be nice to feel somewhat confident that I can get by.
What has your experience been like learning a second language? What have been your biggest obstacles?