Saturday, May 29, 2010


Late last August I wrote about my most recent attempt to study and learn French. The academic year is now finished and I've completed the course, our planned trip to France did not materialize (apparently the economy has hit our students in their travel budgets) and I am nowhere near as advanced as I was 9 years ago.

Maybe I should put it down to age and the slowing of the brain cells. I think more likely it is due to lack of conversation practice. In their infinite wisdom, college administrators have decided that language learning can be accomplished via reduced time face to face and more time in front of a computer. Perhaps this is true for the younger generation. I, however, am old, with old learning styles. I need to hear and speak as much as possible to learn the language. My reading skills are actually pretty good - not fluent by any means - but I can understand much of at least the basics of what I read, if not the nuances. But conversation is tougher.

Luckily for me, the computer has actually turned out to be my friend in this area. I am listening to French radio via the web. I am visiting websites that have podcasts to listen to. It is helpful, but none of this replaces conversation. I need practice speaking and listening. Luckily, other people need the same thing so there are websites dedicated to helping us find each other. I've been able to hook up with several people online who are wanting to improve their English skills in exchange for helping me improve my French.

It's interesting, to say the least. One of my conversation partners is a woman from Versailles. She's hoping to improve her fluency in English for use in the job search venue. Another is a woman from Montreal who, like me, simply wants to improve her skill set. Our exchange is simple. We speak English for the first half hour and we speak French for the second half hour. The service I provide for these women is to ask questions to give them topics about which to speak. Once speaking I correct and give advice in the areas they have indicated they wish to improve. One woman is focused primarily on proper pronunciation and making sure she is using the correct verb tenses. The other woman is more advanced and her focus is fluency and adding to her vocabulary by picking up terminology in her professional field as well as idiom and using them correctly. In return, they correct my grammar and pronunciation and help me understand French idiom.

Both of them speak English far better than I speak French. Luckily for me, both of them are gracious and understanding and infinitely patient with the way I am (certainly) massacring their beautiful language. I am grateful for their willingness to give of their time and expertise.

In addition to my web conversations, I have been fortunate to find someone local who will also converse with me. This is a woman whom I met in a different setting and felt drawn to from the beginning. As often happens, circumstances of location and occupation did not allow a great deal of accidental contact. But I thought of her when I began speaking via Skype with my language learning partners, and decided that it never hurts to ask for what you want. I emailed. She was gracious. We met to speak yesterday for the first time.

We spent an hour at a coffee shop. While there was the occasional need to slip into English, we did spend most of our time actually conversing in French. It was wonderful! I could see her face. I could understand through context what I was not able to catch in vocabulary. I spoke far more fluently with her than I am able to speak with my Skype partners. By the time we were finished I was simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. She gets to speak her native language which is not something she gets to do often living in the US. I get to hear the language and improve my French speaking and understanding. It's an opportunity that is not to be passed by.

As I think about these experiences, I am struck by what happens when you actually seek what you are hoping to gain. How often do we say we want something, yet do nothing to actually attempt to achieve it? We say we want change, yet we stay in the same place. We claim we want to improve, yet we continue in our current habits. We say we want to see something new, yet we continue down the same path we have walked before. Growth and change actually require something from us - a conscious decision to do things differently.

Obviously, I will never achieve the fluency of a native French speaker. To even begin to accomplish that I would need to speak regularly, to immerse myself in the language. More importantly, I would need to be French. But I am excited at my progress over this past month. And I am reminded that it is the growth you experience that gives you the motivation and encouragement to work even harder to gain it.

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