Like so many events that have occurred in my life, I unintentionally stumbled my way into French. When I was in elementary school I had the good fortune to have foreign language classes integrated into my regular academic curriculum. In addition to learning math and science, I also got to learn a bit about Spanish (and acting – theater experiences were also a common component of my elementary education). When I entered middle school (7th grade), I already had four years of Spanish instruction under my belt. Naturally, when I registered for my middle school schedule, I chose the Spanish class as my foreign language elective. But during the first week of classes, the old-and-going-crazy (yet still rather fun) French teacher went to each section of the Spanish class and nearly begged students to drop Spanish and take her class instead. Apparently only three students had registered for French, and if the school didn’t get at least five more students to sign up for the class, the language would be removed from the curriculum (and the teacher would likely be out of a job). Now, Madame M didn’t say all of this when she visited each classroom; she simply said that the French class needed more students, and would any of us please consider switching our language choice? Please?
While I thought Spanish was fine, I wasn’t married to it or anything; and since I want to help others whenever I can (a trait I have possessed since I was a baby [I can tell you many stories about that later if you’d like]), I raised my hand and indicated my willingness to drop the class I was in and pick up French instead. Immediately I became a favorite of Madame M – and she rewarded me and my four other peers who opted to enroll in her class by providing us with four fantastic semesters of language instruction. While the kids in the Spanish class were grinding out verb conjugation sheets, my fellow classmates and I were reading French magazines (actual periodicals imported from France! I thought that was super cool…), writing to French pen pals (I still remember the excitement I felt whenever another paper-thin “Par Avion” envelope arrived in the mailbox), watching movies in French (Marty McFly sounded very queer, but the accent somehow worked well for Peter Venkman), playing games in French, and overall having a really fun time messing around with words and phrases and sounds, all in French. At the time I had no idea I was really “learning” anything; I was just enjoying activities that happened to be in a foreign language.
When I moved from middle school to high school (9th grade), two additional years of foreign language was required for any student who wanted to graduate with honors. Graduating without honors wasn’t an option anyone in my family ever considered (just like attending college was never a question in our household – it was simply assumed that we kids would attend college, graduate in four years, and do so with respectable grades and a bachelor’s degree by the end of the experience), so when I registered for my freshman courses, I wrote “French 3/4” as my foreign language choice (as I had completed “French 1/2″ in middle school). I was rewarded for this decision with another amazing French teacher who was also old and also kind of crazy, but also as kind and warm as Madame M had been. While Madame M made French classes fun, Monsieur T made studying French interesting. Under his tutelage, I grew an impressive vocabulary, a solid grammatical foundation, a basic understanding of French culture and history – and a truly fantastic accent. While Monsieur T was American, he had spent countless months and years living abroad in French-speaking countries, and his French accent was quite authentic. I have a natural aptitude for mimicry, so I simply copied the pronunciations, tone, and lilt that he used – and by the end of my high school experience, I had semi-decent French speaking skills.
Arriving at college, I learned that nearly every bachelor’s degree program required some element of foreign language study. I took the placement test for French, and learned that I could skip the 100-level courses, and pop right into the 200-level class series. Figuring I would stick with what I already knew, I registered for French 201: Conversation et Culture. By the end of my first year of college I had completed all of the formal foreign language requirements, and could have stopped taking classes then if I wanted. But as my peers and I were discussing what we should each major in, they let me know that in addition to getting a major, potential employers looked favorably on students who got a minor, too. Since the ultimate net goal of my college experience was to get a job, I figured I would continue taking French classes, and make that my minor. I was only nine credits away from a French minor, after all – and those credits could be earned through taking just three more classes. Easy.
By the end of my sophomore year I had earned that minor in French, but the advanced 400-level French classes were the really fun ones. In the 100-300 level classes, instructors focused on teaching vocabulary, grammar, and other necessary basics of language acquisition. But once a student got to the 400-level, it was assumed that s/he could speak, read, and write fluently in French – so the advanced classes focused on topics like reading French plays (and acting them out), discussing European current events and the impact of those daily news items on both French and American cultures, digging into famous (and not-so-famous) French artists and learning about their works as well as their personal lives….Really cool stuff. So during my junior and senior years of college I took a total of six different French classes, simply because I was intrigued by the course topics. As I pulled together my graduation paperwork during my final semester, I realized that I had obtained a full-on bachelor’s degree in French. Wow. Who would have ever guessed? Certainly not me.
But as is the case with any skill, if not used on at least a semi-regular basis, language proficiency rapidly decreases…When I left college and entered the business world (again, who would have guessed? Not me!), one question in my mind (among many) was, “How might I be able to retain some of my rather impressive French-speaking skills?” At the time I had no real opportunities to converse in French around the office, and all of my French-speaking friends were literally hundreds of miles away. As I became friends with a few colleagues at work, one day the lunch conversation turned to what we missed about college (now that we were “real” adults and all…) – and I mentioned that I missed having a group of people around to chat with en française. One of the people at the table turned to me and said, “Oh, you can do that here! There is this place called the ‘Alliance Française’, and they have all sorts of conversation circles. You should check them out!” So when I returned to my desk that afternoon, I popped online and located the Alliance’s website – and found that indeed, the Alliance Française offers many opportunities for people in the city to engage in French language (and culture) with others who possess these same interests. How cool!
I had planned on attending the very next conversation circle that fit my schedule – but then my calendar started to fill up with other things. I joined an athletic club and committed to group runs three nights a week. I attended happy hours in an effort to meet people, and maybe (hopefully) make some new friends in a city where I knew no one. I spent a good part of every Sunday trying to find a church that felt like “home” (with no success – but that’s a story of its own…). I started dating a boy. Quickly finding myself with surprisingly minimal “free time”, I never made checking out the Alliance a priority. And before I knew it, 15 years had flown by – and I still had yet to walk through the institution’s doors.
My impressive French skills from my college days are long gone – yet I can still understand and speak the language, albeit haltingly. I believe it’s never “too late” to do something in life (unless you’re dead), so when I created my 101 list I decided that I wanted to commit to checking out a conversation circle at the Alliance Française. For real. Seriously.
So over a decade after my first query, I once again visited the Alliance’s website and perused their various language offerings. I learned that the Alliance offers a breakfast conversation group the first Saturday morning of every month where they provide “Petits Pains, Café et Conversation dans La Grande Salle”. (Translation: ‘Little Breads’ [i.e., pastries], coffee, and conversation in the Grand Hall.) Looking at my calendar, I saw that the first Saturday in September had zero meetings or commitments on it – so I quickly filled the space from 9:30-11:30 am with an appointment to attend “P’tit Dej” (aka, “Petit Déjeuner”, or ‘little breakfast’).
I arrived at the Alliance at 9:15 am. I wasn’t sure if the doors to “P’tit Dej” opened early, so I chose to spend 15 minutes walking around downtown. (A little exercise is never a bad thing.) As I walked near one of the few shady spots on the unseasonably warm morning, I saw several pieces of really cool artwork, including this sculpture:
After spending a few moments admiring the impressive public pieces of art, I strolled back to the Alliance – and arrived at their door precisely at 9:30 am.
I was the second person to enter the Grand Salle, and I was warmly greeted by a cheery office assistant who invited me to fill out a name tag, serve myself some pastries and/or coffee, and take a seat at one of the many tables in the large room. All of these instructions were spoken to me in French, and I was rather surprised that I understood them with relative ease. I smiled at the assistant, wrote my name on a sticker and placed the identifier on my chest, then quickly looked around the small-but-warm space:
No more than five minutes later, the Grand Salle began to fill with people. The first person to join me at the table was a woman in her late 20s who worked for the Canadian Consulate. She reads and hears French all day long, but doesn’t get many opportunities to speak the language, so she came to the conversation circle to help develop her verbal skills. Her French was pretty good; while her accent was more American than French, her vocabulary was solid, and the pace (“fluency”) of her language was appropriate for a casual conversation. Soon after she and I engaged in introductions, three more people joined our group. The first individual was a man in his late 20s who had been studying French with a private tutor for a year, simply because he wanted to learn the language. For only studying French for twelve months, the man’s comprehension and speaking skills were quite impressive. While his accent was 100% American (it was as if he almost didn’t even try to add a French lilt to the words he spoke), his vocabulary and grammar were both very solid. The other two people who sat down at the table were women in their mid-20s, both from Africa. One was from Togo (a French-speaking country), so she was naturally very proficient in her speech. The other was from a different part of Africa where French is not spoken; but this woman has to take a certain number of foreign language classes for her college studies, so she chose French – then hired her friend to tutor her. The non-French-speaking African was clearly uncomfortable being at the table while the four of us prattled along in French, so she simply sat next to the woman from Togo, listening to us but choosing to remain mute herself.
Ten minutes later, a second wave of people joined our small group:
- a woman in her early 60s who was born and raised in Russia (but has lived in the US for the past 20 years);
- a man in his mid 50s who was born and raised in France (but who moved to Minnesota 22 years ago to marry his then-fiancée/now-wife);
- the wife of the aforementioned French man (who seemed to be in her mid-to-late 40s, and who knew just a few words of French);
- a single woman in her late 30s (who grew up in central [rural] Minnesota).
I smiled at each of the new arrivals, and asked them their name and where they were from. The Russian woman, the French man, and the French man’s wife all answered me in English. Wait, what? We’re at a French conversation group – speak French. I understand that there will be some words that people don’t know, or some concepts that are difficult to explain in a foreign language – and in these instances, I’ll grant a little leeway if someone sheepishly lapses into a few moments of English. But I trust that everyone who is considering attending a French discussion group knows how to say, “Je m’appelle” and “Je viens de”. Hell, even people who can’t locate Franch on a map know what “Je m’appelle” means, right? I don’t know a lick of Italian, but certainly I know how to greet someone with “Ciao!” Seriously people, pull it together! And Mr. I-Am-Literally-A-Citizen-Of-France – speak French! This is not an English practice group it’s a French one – so stick to the format!
Alas, from the moment they sat down, these three people refused to speak French. They all certainly liked to talk, though, and asked an abundance of questions in English – and I responded each time in French. I would then pose a follow-up question in French, and would receive a mixture of mostly- English responses. Grr.
After a few minutes of this nonsense, I turned to the woman from central Minnesota. She had been silent up to this point, so I attempted to engage her in some conversation. I asked her if she lived nearby, and she responded in nearly perfect French, “I live two blocks away.” Delighted that she responded to my foreign-language query in kind, I asked her what she did for work. She explained that she oversaw admissions at a nearby university, and from there she and I engaged in a lively conversation, entirely in French. She told me of her passion for travel, and briefly described all of the places she has lived in her nearly 20 years as an adult; I explained how I “stumbled” into a French degree quite accidentally; and back-and-forth we went sharing stories and experiences for a good half-hour. We joked – and understood each other! It felt wonderful to laugh in a foreign language.
Indeed, it felt incredible to speak French again after all these years of it being absent from my life. I was surprised at how quickly much of the language came back to me; just ten minutes after I arrived at the Alliance, I felt like I was able to recall around 70% of my language skills. I suspect if I were immersed in the language I would be able to attain native levels of proficiency in just a few weeks, if not sooner. But unfortunately, relocation isn’t in my near future (at least, not that I’m aware of), so for now I’ll have to be content with doses of French conversation as I can find them.
My Alliance discussion partner informed me of another venue where many people gather every Saturday morning to practice their French speaking skills – and with a scornful glance at the English-speaking folks at the far end of the table, she quietly stated, “And at that location, people speak only French. Using lots of English is considered gauche, and it simply isn’t tolerated. That venue doesn’t offer free pastries and coffee like they do here,” she explained with a bit of a sigh, “but they do provide hours of opportunity to speak French. Real French.” She finished, and munched a bit more on her free cinnamon bread.
My ears perked up at the mention of this new venue. A gathering that meets every week, where many proficient (and even fluent) French speakers chat for hours at a time? Fantastic!
Yet after a solid hour of engaging in French conversation, I needed a break. I don’t have to many hour-long conversations in English – and the added layer of processing the dialogue in a foreign language really wore me out. So at 10:45 am I politely excused myself from the table, thanked my primary conversation partner for a lovely morning, and left the Alliance Française feeling a bit tired, but also exceedingly happy.
I suspect if I regularly attended the weekly conversation group, I would re-establish my French skills t a very acceptable level in relatively short order. And I’m leaning towards wanting to do it. I’ve missed French. I’ve missed the unexplainable joy I feel in connecting with other people through this beautiful language. I don’t really care what the topic of conversation is, or who engages in dialogue with me; as long as we’re speaking in French, I feel a light, bright smile in my heart. I don’t know why this is the case, but it is. There’s just something delightfully special to me about French. C’est manifique!