Over the summer in France, Bernard and I had lunch together each week to catch up on the news. We spoke in French and while I understood him easily, when it was my turn to speak, I was hesitant and my sentences were dotted with errors. Then, one day something changed – for the first time, the French I heard myself speaking was fluent. A goal I set myself in 2004 had been met. No longer were there awkward silences; after a project lasting years, I had managed to train part of my grey matter to become a dedicated French language centre and on that day it came into action.
Before the project began, I could just about manage rudimentary, primary-school-level sentences, but expressing adult ideas was impossible. To communicate, I relied on being translated by my wife, Rohan, who is French-English bilingual – an arrangement that seemed unfair all round.
Then, in November 2004 we bought a converted barn in Brittany. The property had been discovered by French friends living nearby. To celebrate the purchase and to welcome us to the neighbourhood, they invited us to dinner. That meal proved pivotal.
There were probably ten of us around the table and all, save me, were French speakers. Throughout, I said and understood next to nothing. Although Rohan translated key points, it was impossible for me to make any sensible contribution and, in response, the other diners decided to ignore me. I became invisible, eye contact was avoided and conversation was directed past me.
In a way, invisibility suited me – what could I do if my opinion was sought? However, the idea of being ignored like this each time I came to France was untenable, so when we returned to London I began to learn French in earnest. With hard work, it should be possible to express my views at an equivalent dinner the following year, or so I believed. That becoming fluent might take over a decade was never contemplated.
While learning was sometimes fraught, it was almost always fascinating; what’s more, during the process I became a French language addict and a committed Francophile. In numbers, I studied French for around fifteen hours each week; time mainly spent in one-to-one private lessons, in classes with student groups and in doing homework. There were also weeks spent at immersion courses and hours reading French books and newspapers. With a similar inventory, others might well have become fluent rather sooner, but in my defence, going from child-level French to a proficiency that befits someone of my age, is a big ask!
It is to the Language Centre of London’s Institut français that I owe most gratitude. The staff welcomed me warmly at the start and then helped me as I ‘grew up’, starting as a very anxious six-year old – or so it felt. Finally, there were equally warm ‘au revoirs’ when I left as a fluent, autonomous adult with my project essentially completed.
At the ‘Institut’ and in my private lessons I had extraordinary teachers who showed skill, insight and forbearance. On many occasions and with great diplomacy all weathered the demands of this pushy student. Being taught by them has been a privilege.
But there was also straight talking; when I was going through a particularly vociferous stage, one of my favourite teachers would resolve the problem by discretely turning to me and moving her hand across her mouth – giving a message that was clear “Joe, please zip up!”. Similarly, when I got ahead of myself another favourite teacher reminded me of a reality. I had just finished a month concentrating on pronunciation and I asked how long it would take for me to have a good French accent. With a wry smile he responded “another 60 years!”.
The courses at the Institute required me to master much more than language; over the years I learned about French history, culture, democracy, education and politics and this was a wonderful bonus. Moreover, as I struggled to become fluent in French, I realised what powerful commodities words were and how by mastering their use I would gain a sense of autonomy. Indeed, by being fluent I have become free to be myself, to express myself and to decide for myself – in effect to be an adult in another land.
To learn French to this level, I have needed luck, help, a well-defined objective and a mind prepared to learn new tricks. It has been a fulfilling adventure for me personally; it has also been welcomed by others. Rohan is pleased that she no longer has to translate for me and now she enjoys watching me being more independent. My friends in France are delighted that I have bothered to become familiar with their ways and their culture which has in turn led to a greater closeness. Just as in English, the advantages of being fluent and at ease in French seem endless.
In this journey and for helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Virginie, Audrey, Bernard, Christiane, Joëlle, Marie, Thierry, Vivien and Rohan.