How I learned to speak, hate and love French

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“So, do you speak French?”

That’s a question I get a lot when I try to explain my second language ability to other people.  As an Ontarian who was failed by our province’s core program, I learned to speak French largely on my own initiative.  My quest to learn the language of la belle province has been marked by awards for most improved to near failing grades, and everything in between.

I only really began to speak French when I moved to Switzerland at 17, where I spent the year living with a French-speaking Swiss family. In a living situation that can only be described as a baptism by fire, I went from barely being able to utter a word – much less follow a conversation – to chatting away with my host family in a matter of months.

Yes, my sentences were filled with grammatical errors and punctuated with an atrocious Anglophone accent, but I developed a great deal of confidence and fluency during my time in Switzerland.  At graduation, I was given an award for most improved French, highlighting how far I had come since September.

Buoyed by my confidence in my quick study of French, I continued my education at university.  I was in Quebec, had already come quite far and French is a life skill! Oh, how quickly I was knocked off my pedestal.

I struggled, quite stubbornly, through four years of French at McGill University. I did hours of in-class grammar exercises, presentations, speeches, tests and interviews, and gradually watched my grades slide.  By fourth year, I was concerned that I had hit my “wall” of French capability.  Instead of getting my normal grades in the mid-70s, all of my test scores had sunk below the mid-60s.  I was getting worse, not better.

By graduation, I had no confidence in my ability to speak the language.

But I continued on my stubborn quest to speak French.  Determined to extend my carefree undergraduate life beyond graduation, I subleased a room in my friend’s apartment and worked during the summer of 2009…in French.  Specifically, I sold clothes on commission and wrangled 12-year-olds with attitude at a day camp…in French.  On top of that, I spent some time with a very cute French guy.

I still vividly remember some of my finest moments from that summer.  The first time I spoke to a customer in the clothing store in French, I was so nervous I could barely get the words out.  Once, in the Berri-UQAM metro station, I was so frustrated that I forgot my inhibitions and screamed at a camper in French, only to make absolutely no sense and be laughed at by a group of children.  And I never spoke French with the cute French guy, I made him speak English.

For me, learning to speak French has been an uphill battle. I have resigned myself to the reality that I am not a natural at languages.  I worry that I don’t speak French, I will never be able to use it in a job situation and I haven’t learned anything at all.  When drafting my post-graduation CV, I seriously contemplated leaving my French skills off.

What is the point of saying you speak a language, when you’re not even sure you do?

In the end, I decided to leave my French skills on my resumé because I have come too far to sell myself short.  Any language skill, no matter how limited, is an asset in the job market.  As long as you’re honest about your capabilities, you should be proud to tell employers what you know.

I have spent the last five years of my life living with strangers, struggling through bad grades and embarrassing work situations in order to be able to say, “Yes, I speak French.”  And you know what?  I’ve found that when I actually calm down and stop worrying about what I sound like, I do speak French.

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