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French level

It hasn’t been easy living in France.  From the beginning I had trouble learning the language.  I was and am not able to pay to go to the university as some of you other expats have had the luck of doing.  Once we were on our feet enough that we could afford to put the kids in daycare for a few hours a week, Vilay and I felt that my level in French (although not perfect) was too high for OMI.  OMI is a foundation but by no means will get someone at a high level of French. 

When we came to France we had NOTHING.  We came like most others.  We came with suitcases full of clothes and I had the smarts to include many toys for the kids.  For the first eight months we ate in the living room and watched t.v. sitting at our kitchen table.  We didn’t have money to buy a couch.  The first six months we walked to the grocery or went by tram pulling babies and groceries along.  When my son was born my father came for a visit.  My Dad told me our apartment was bare.  I told him he should have seen it just six months before he had come.  I told him I felt like the apartment was crowded after living so long with it practically empty.   

I made doctors appointments for my children speaking in French from the beginning.  Vilay didn’t give me the same language shelter he had asked of me while living in the States.  I made appointments for him for two years.  I want to thank him for that because I was forced out of my English bubble during these short moments and gained confidence in myself speaking French.

As a stay at home mother in a country where you know no one there aren’t a lot of opportunities to ‘practice’ French.  I made a few French friends but it still wasn’t enough.  One of my friends spoke English so well that at first I was excited because I thought I was living above another American woman.  She is French but spent time studying in the States.  She must be gifted in learning language as well because she has only a slight accent and speaks English like an American.  So, we fell naturally into the speak in English trap that my husband and I are in.  My other French friend spoke in terrible English but she would always speak to me in English even if I spoke in French.  I think she was happy to have found someone to practice English with.  Other than that I was at home by myself with the kids.

In the hospital after having my son I was alone but for one half hour a day when Vilay would stop by and then dash off.  I had the pleasure of staying in a room alone until the last day.  I spoke in French with everyone and had huge conversations with the woman that was placed with me in the room on the last day.  We had many laughs trying to get around the language hump but for the most part we talked freely. 

I can speak French.  My simple French is good.  However, it is impossible to have a conversation in simple French alone.  When I am having a conversation with someone in French I am understood but make many errors.  Also, I make stupid mistakes that I walk away hitting myself in the head because I know how to say whatever I flubbed up.  Like when we were in Colmar a woman dropped her sweater.  I stopped and told her,  “Tu as perdue ton pull.”  I used tu instead of vous.  Immediately, I realized my mistake but she didn’t care.  She understood me and my French was good except for the tu.  Tu is used with friends and family.  Vous is used with people you don’t know or show respect to such as a boss or inlaw.  Mostly, I speak using tu.  Or the time I took Petite Clown to the hospital on Christmas Eve and the doctor told me Merry Christmas.  Instead of saying ‘Joyoux Noël” I told him “Bon nuit”.  I knew how to say it but my brain loves to embarrass me. 

When I cut my finger and had to go to the hospital to get it stitched up the doctor told me I had a good French.  She said even though I didn’t speak at a high level I had a very good French. 

I even corrected my French children’s French in the beginning.  I had to.  Vilay was at work all day and they only had me.  I still am correcting it at times but they are quickly passing me now that they are with their friends and teacher at school.

Vilay and I had big fights over me not going to the university to learn French.  I know that I have to in order to have a high level of French and find a high paying job.  He would tell me that if I found the money I could go.  I sat playing with numbers and no matter how I worked it there wasn’t enough to pay for school.  We needed a couch, mattress for our bed and the kids needed shoes, clothes and we had to pay for Angel to fly from Paris to Strasbourg twice a year.  Her father would only send her to Paris even if it didn’t cost more to send her to Strasbourg.  Our shared parenting papers stated France.  I was stupid and didn’t see that this would be an issue.  However, Paris is in France.  He did what the paper stated.  We bought the computer on credit because I missed my family and my daughter.  It would be possible to keep in touch for free. 

No matter what reasons there are for me to not be fluent in French they are mine.  No one reading my blog knows my life REALLY.

I am not writing this post asking for anyone to feel sorry for me.  I am sure I am not the only person living in France that has not been able to pay for French classes.  They will appreciate this post knowing they are not alone as well as the fact that my level of French has come up too many times for it not to be addressed on this blog. 

I am happy for those of you that had the opportunity to go to the university.  I really am.  It makes a difference and I hope that by next year I, too, will be able to go.  I think I need six months at the university and I will be good to go.  Those six months will change my life in France. 

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Arnold May 13, 2007, 12:49 pm

    Not sure if it’s an option for you, but if you can register as unemployed, then ANPE will pay for French lessons. Even if you don’t get any social payments out of the registration, the free French lessons are a big plug. It also entitles you to a free bus pass.

  • Pumpkin May 13, 2007, 1:05 pm

    I didn’t know about this. I will be checking it out. Thank you, Arnold.

  • Bee Ean May 13, 2007, 1:06 pm

    I went to the University for two semesters but my French is still broken. I hope these classes will help you more than it helped me.

    Anyway, have you tried those free French classes? There are a lot of my friends who have never went to University, but they learn French from these free classes, some required by cnasea as a new wed to a French citizen. I was not asked to attend these classes as I had been to the University, so I asked to enroll myself through Culture et Liberté. I was even paid to attend the class. Then, I went to Capformation for an oral class, you only need 2 hours per week. Try your Regional Conseil General for certain courses that can interested you and they might pay you to help finance the courses. Then, you have AFPA, you learn French through long distance, you do the exercise and go once a week to hand in the homework. My friend is paid 650 euros a month for doing it. All I want to say is that there might be a lot of classes that is suitable for you and they are free bcos you are the spouse of a French.

  • Pumpkin May 13, 2007, 5:04 pm

    Bee Ean,
    Thank you as well. I had no clue that there was more out there. It is frustration to not be able to speak fluently especially when I am talking to my childrens teachers. Plus, I want to work somewhere besides in the kitchen of a café.

    You made my day by giving some solutions to learning to speak fluently faster.

    I spoke a lot today in French with my husband. He corrected me when I flubbed up and I learned at least three new words and how to say some things that don’t translate literally from English to French.

    But, I really need to study and have structure to get me where I need to be.

  • Cathy Y. May 13, 2007, 5:19 pm

    Pumpkin, I hope the new options that others have offered are a help to you, but I just wanted to say, options aside, that I think you do remarkably well in everything considering that you have your hands full with three very young children. As someone who has had (and still has!) young children at home, I can attest to how difficult it is to get ANYTHING done around them. It is a full-time job. I would imagine that living in a foreign country and dealing with children at the same time would be an even more difficult job. As I write this, it is Mother’s Day here in the States, and I hope, as you read this, that you will take a moment to reflect on all you do and to give yourself credit for ALL that you deserve, including learning French to the level that you know it now. Of course, you want to improve, but don’t get down on yourself or anything. You do a remarkable job. My hat is tipped to you!

  • Pumpkin May 14, 2007, 10:30 am

    Cathy Y.,

    Happy Mother’s Day to you, too!!

    And, to all the other Mom’s out there.

  • Anna May 14, 2007, 11:45 am

    I took French in high school, college, and then later even some adult education classes. I also took over one year of intensive dull-time French in France at a University. I still probably speak worse French than you since I tend to avoid French people and speaking French and always fall back on my English. I speak French with my husband and watch English-language movies and news on cable tv while I’m in France. I wouldn’t worry about having taken an “official” French class to perfect your French. I know plenty of fluent and self-taught Anericans. Why don’t you just buy one of those learn French CD’s and a book on Ebay to review your grammar? That would be very inexpensive and you could do it all in your free time. Good luck.

  • Anna May 14, 2007, 11:46 am

    ooopps! I meant full-time! Not “dull-time”. : ) They weren’t even dull at all so I don’t think that was a Freudian Slip!

  • Pumpkin May 14, 2007, 12:12 pm

    I bought the Bescherelle – La Conjugaison several months ago, but with all the craziness in my life the past year have not did much with it. I think it is a good place to start when the girls are at school otherwise I won’t be able to concentrate.

  • roland May 14, 2007, 12:36 pm

    chere madame citrouille,
    I think you don’t need to go to the University
    Frist of all you to have in your mind “the french music” then you won’t have to translate . You will think in french
    THe best way to learn english is to sing Beatles songs or Suzanne Vega ‘s one . Find a french artist you like( Voulzy , Souchon , Bruel…) and juste sing while you do anything else! The musles of your mouth will learn and your brain will automaticaly give you back those “all made french sentences”
    You can sing kids songs childrens or you could read them childrens books you pick up at school. simple vocabulary with simple constructions (do you now the story of Ratus? ask to the teatcher of you kids!)
    See french DVD with french subtitles just to have the music
    And remember one thing you will NEVER speak a perfect french ! (even on TV news PPD make mistakes )
    One last thing …don’t focus on TU and VOUS
    ces petites erreurs te seront tout de suite pardonnées! c’est tellement charmant et inattendu

  • Cathy Y. May 14, 2007, 5:20 pm

    I did Pimsleur, all three Comprehensive French levels, and even as expensive as that was, it only got me to the point where, upon our most recent trip to France, I could understand maybe 25% or so of the words being spoken around me. I’ve heard that Linguaphone has some good products that they claim can take you to a much higher level, but they are pricey as well. I was impressed, Pumpkin, at how much you could understand, for example, when you were visiting us and the landlady of our rental cottage was speaking to you and your husband and you could understand what she was saying. You’ll do well. It just takes time. And the kids won’t be little forever, taking up so much of your time. Having two much older kids, I can attest to the fact that they grow up fast. It just seems like forever when they are little, sometimes, and you have things you need to do.

  • Pumpkin May 14, 2007, 6:55 pm

    Merci beaucoup, Roland. I do know some French childrens songs but I don’t know this story. I will check with the teachers. Now, that will give me practice!!! :)

    Cathy Y. It is easier to understand than to speak….that is what frustrates me. You will understand as much as I do if you were listening to French t.v. and others speaking in French on a regular basis.

  • Arnold May 15, 2007, 7:54 am

    The problem with Linguaphone and similar do-it-all-by-yourself type courses is keeping going. The motivation is a problem, of course, but I found that the biggest problem was that once I hit a bit I found very difficult (or just plain couldn’t do!), I never moved on. In a class environment, you just have to skip that and move on which is OK because in language classes you always revisit earlier topics later on and second or third time around chances are that you will understand it.

    The perfect combination for me was Alliance Francaise conversation classes (an hour a week class size four) plus the Open University (www.open.ac.uk) for the grammar and vocab. Starting the AF in September, the OU the following Feb, I was fluent (ie able to chat in French) by that July – only about nine months starting from a very basic level of French.

    The biggest problem with the small class size is that it is unbelieveably intimidating. I dreaded going every single night from Sept to June! Yet, it was a doddle from when the classes resumed after the summer.

  • santi May 15, 2007, 4:41 pm

    Hi Pumpkin! It’s nice to have found your blog. My husband is French, but we never lived there. I speak very basic French and surely will go through the same phase as you if we ever going to live in France. May I link your blog to my journal?

  • Cathy Y. May 17, 2007, 12:28 am

    Pumpkin, I know what you mean about understanding being easier than speaking. At my level (which is lower than yours), the same is true for me. I think Roland is onto something there with the singing songs and stories to yourself. I think maybe the key is to “think” in the other language more, even when it isn’t necessary for communication. That way, you are thinking more like a native, and not just “translating” — if you know what I mean. I think the “translating” is what slows us down. I experienced a tiny amount of this on our three-week visit, where I would start thinking French words I knew for something, or even thinking in English with the order changed up to be more like in French. Philippe said this meant my brain was being “re-wired.” LOL

  • Pumpkin May 19, 2007, 7:56 am


    Link away. I am placing a link to your blog as well.

  • Catherine May 31, 2007, 10:26 am


    What about bartering? I know lots of people in the Strasbourg area who would love a chance to practice their English in exchange for French lessons. Just put up an ad at Marc Block University (English language department) and I’m sure you’ll find several people right away.
    Good luck. You just have to be creative…

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