It has been two and a half years since I moved to France and something I am very proud of is how quickly I have been able to learn French. I studied French in high school, but the American system is not particularly great in teaching foreign languages. I left high school with a basic understanding of vocabulary and grammar. My French was practically barbaric when I arrived (and something that my first French family LOVED to point out, but if I mentioned their Spanish or English, they weren’t too thrilled when I corrected them).
People who meet me today are stunned when I tell them how long I have actually been speaking French for. How did I learn French so fast? They’ve been studying English for years and can get phrases, sentences together and can understand a good portion of English… but they can’t speak it. I am not very strong in languages by the way. Sure, I speak Spanish and English but those are my native languages. I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about the grammar and how it works because I haven’t studied it in depth. In fact, now that I am learning German, I am learning a lot more about the English language than I did in school.
I am a strong believer that when learning a language, you just have to sit in a room and hear it, try to understand the situation and not be afraid to make mistakes. You can’t learn a language without making them. In fact, when I first met the Frenchman, my French was barbaric, and he barely spoke English. My first sentence to him when we met? He corrected it. That was one of the things that attracted me to him. He also did it in a way that didn’t sound condescending and in a manner that he actually wanted to help me learn his language. Our text messages at the beginning were awful. He would make a list of the things I had spelled wrong with their correction and then afterwards reply to what I had tried to say. I remember the first time I made no mistakes in a text that I had sent him. He had pointed it out and I read it on the metro. I remember not being able to stop smiling like a crazy person.
Every time that I mention I have a French boyfriend and we speak in French, people go, “oh, well THAT explains why you speak French so well. The only way to learn a language is to gain a lover”. Which in a way, is true. I learned French thanks to the Frenchman, but I think finding someone who is open to teaching another person about their language is important. When I first got to France, I signed up for a site called My Language Exchange. I never ended up meeting people on there. I exchanged a few emails with a guy, but that was it. I did have friends who did go on a few coffee runs to exchange languages, and some are still friends today. Also, the amount of people who I have met that speak English due to films is incredible, and they speak English particularly well. Reading in the language you want to speak is important as well. I have a book, Le Petit Prince, which is all marked up with vocabulary and grammar tenses. Night by Elie Wiesel was the first book I ever finished completely in French.
These are the tricks that helped me learn French, and I know will be the tricks that will help me advance in Italian and German (my goal is to be a polyglot in life). I find languages fascinating and the most intricate way to actually meet a culture. I wish more people in this world would take their time to learn foreign languages. It’s not only healthy mentally, but it is also very important when seeing other cultures and opening viewpoints. The amount of times that the Frenchman and I have gotten into silly, ridiculous fights because I said something wrong, or expressed a saying that doesn’t translate as well or my intonation didn’t depict what I was trying to say, is unfathomable. But it has taught us that our cultures aren’t the same, that we weren’t raised in the same one, that we must accept these little habits and ticks in each other because we come from different countries with different views on society, the world and life.
Learning languages is important.
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