The stories of a couchsurfer

Learning a language, Part I

As I’ve mentioned many times before in previous articles, my main aim of this journey is to learn more about the world through different cultures and to, by doing that, learn more about myself and develop my understanding of the world more.

But there’s certainly a secondary mission happening here. Why did I choose France of all places to obtain my visa and spend the majority of my time there? Well, firstly it has a different culture to that in Australia. Not massively different in the grand scheme of things – it’s still in the western world after all, but different enough to learn from. I figured that spending some time in the UK just wouldn’t really provide as much of a cultural experience.

But the primary reason that I chose France to spend my time in is because I wanted to learn the language. Having spent six months in Montréal in 2008, I started to learn the very basics and became interested in learning more. I had always wanted to pursue a second language, I just wasn’t sure which one I wanted it to be and having landed in Montréal kind of sorted that out for me.

Upon the return to Australia I attempted to self teach myself for a year but it became evident that it was going nowhere and I would have to seek some more professional assistance so I enrolled myself in a class at Alliance Française, a specialist French language school. Here I spent nearly three years learning the intricacies of the language.

But it was only two hours per week. To me it wasn’t enough, and it would never be enough. I envisioned that I could continue the classes for fifty years of my life and still never really speak the language with full fluency. I wouldn’t have the benefit of learning the latest phrases used on the streets of france, and the slang.

To my former classmates who may follow this blog, I imagine that this is what they were looking forward to reading the most and yet I haven’t documented the journey at all in this regard yet. This series of articles will thus focus on my experiences on learning the French language, and may also touch on my experiences with other languages as I travel around Europe. This series of articles is dedicated to my former classmates who, no doubt, are just as intrigued as I as to how to best improve language skills.

I have been in France for nearly two months now (subtracting the short stint in The Netherlands). Prior to this trip, my biggest exposure to the French language since my days in Montréal was a two week trip in New Caledonia so two months is a period that far exceeds any other that I have experienced so far in terms of immersing myself in a country that doesn’t (or at least, not very well) speak my mother tongue.

I always envisioned learning a language to be an exponential experience. At the beginning the student knows zero. A sentence is read or spoken to them and they know absolutely nothing about what the content is trying to communicate. They have the added disadvantage of, because they are at level zero, not even knowing the context in which the sentence has been written or spoken.

Soon they learn the basic words. Numbers, greetings and colours among other things. Show them the same sentence on paper and they may still not know what it is trying to communicate, but they do know that there are four red objects of something. This may seem useless in the context of the sentence but it is actually a massive boost in aiding in understanding the sentence. The student now figures that what follows is most likely a noun of some sort and can begin to deduce some other words with guided estimation.

Every word learned makes the next word easier to learn. Every sound of speech recognised makes it easy to recognise the next, and to associate some words with others. It’s hard to ask what a word means when you’re not sure if the sound someone blurted was one word or twelve.

If this exponential theory is correct, then it means that the first steps are the hardest and the most frustrating, particularly when you’re surrounded by a table of native speakers. How do you jump in and put your two cents’ worth into a conversation when you don’t even know what it’s about? But it also means that perhaps you just have to hang in tight, ride the storm of confusion and know that your rocket of learning will come at some point over the hill.

After my New Caledonian experience I wasn’t sure how long that hill was. It was obviously longer than two weeks, but I did feel myself improving in such a short time. The optimist in me suggested that perhaps after a month things would start to fly along, whereas the pessimist had heard stories suggesting it would take upwards of three years of full immersion before you could even begin to contemplate that you are fluent.

Two months into my French adventure and I’m still as unsure as before. There is no doubt in saying that I have improved far more rapidly than I had done taking classes at home. This was never going to be disproven. But am I learning at an exponential rate? I still can’t definitively say. I don’t think I’m over that hill yet.

I’ve heard a lot from people that whenever you don’t understand something then speak up and ask what it means. This is the only (or at least, the best) way to learn and you will find yourself improving rapidly. I agree wholeheartedly. But what if you don’t understand eighty percent of the sentence? Am I going to stop the speaker who is actually directing their conversation to a table full of fully understanding people, interrupt the flow of conversation and get them to dissect and explain the definition of each word of that sentence for the next five minutes, killing the ambiance and conversation in the room? And as soon as they continue their story to the next sentence do it all over again. I won’t. And so for me, sometimes I just have to put up with not understanding everything.

Now, when this level improves such that instead of it being eighty percent of the conversation I don’t understand it’s one word every ten sentences, then perhaps I’ll be more comfortable to stop the speaker and ask what it means.

But until I get to this stage it brings up an interesting conundrum, one that I first really experienced with Florian, my Couchsurfing host in Marseille. Up to this point, most of the people I have met have either been capable of speaking English well and therefore happy to speak English with me, or nearly incapable of speaking English at all and therefore there was no option but to speak French.

But with Florian, he could speak English perfectly well yet we spoke French. But it makes sense, right? We are in France after all, and I am here to develop my French. But at what point do you sacrifice your experiences and understanding of the situation in order to benefit from a bit of learning.

With Florian we could have spoken English together the entire time and both of us would have understood 100 percent of the conversation. Doing this, we would fully be able to enjoy each other’s jokes and remarks and the conversations could have gone into a deeper meaning and context, touching on more advanced topics. Ironically, I could have learnt more about the Marseillais culture by speaking English with him, purely because I could have understood more.

But instead we spoke French. We spoke French together because he knew that I was there to improve my French skills so he was helping me out, and I felt I would be taking the easy path if I were to resort back to English and that that kind of attitude would be exactly what would prevent me from developing at the pace I wanted to.

And so, as a result, I missed out on a lot of the conversation. I accepted not understanding some things for the benefit of learning the language and keeping the flow of conversation going.

It’s something that I’m still trying to figure out which is the best avenue to take. Is learning the language my primary goal and not fully learning the culture here through understanding, or is learning the language and the struggles associated with it just another element of the journey of discovery that I’ve embarked on?

I feel that perhaps I’ll never find out, because before I do I’ll be speaking the language well enough for it to no longer be an issue. If this is the case, I’ll be very happy.

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