The Gradual Progression

Being able to understand 99% of what people say in French is a huge accomplishment, I feel. I remember constantly struggling to understand movies or songs in French when I was in college and then trying to understand actual conversations when I first arrived in France. Today I have no problems understanding any of those things. I like being able to watch Amélie again and understand it perfectly, when I know I couldn’t do that before. Today it seems so easy. And that’s why I get so frustrated while studying German or Italian. I cannot understand 99% of what people say and it makes me feel like a failure. But I haven’t been exposed to those languages nearly as long as I have been to French.

I’ve been in France for over 3 years now and I need to keep in mind the enormous amount of information that my brain absorbed. I do remember struggling to speak even a year after my arrival. By the following summer, things were better, but still not good. Finally during my 3rd summer, I felt more and more confident and had real, normal, long, in-depth conversations with French people!  I had been learning how to communicate the entire time, but I never noticed when I picked up new vocabulary or when I was able to speak more coherently without stumbling because there is a gradual progression to learning a language. One day you just realize that you can understand, and that you can respond to questions, and that you can function like a human being in a genuine conversation instead of just saying yes or no or I don’t know.

If I had come to France to study French, I’m sure that my acquisition would have been quicker. But I came here to teach English, and even now I feel that teaching English prevents me from perfecting my French. That’s a huge concern for me since I would like to teach French someday. Of course, I was also preoccupied with studying a little German and Italian, so I can’t say my focus has been all on French. Nevertheless, the simple fact of being immersed in French everyday – even when I didn’t want to be or didn’t notice it – has helped immensely. Now I’m trying to replicate that with German, which obviously can’t be done the exact same way as I do not live in a German-speaking country, but I’m really trying to listen to German as much as possible. And maybe one day I’ll notice that I can understand every word in Good Bye, Lenin! and all of this hard work to acquire yet another language will feel as if it had been so easy all along.

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  • http://www.anne-arnott.blogspot.com/ anne

    A very interesting post. I only know a few words in French, never learnt, but I did notice when I was in Paris for nearly 3 weeks, words came to me, that I didn’t even know that I knew. I was with friends who live there but are from the States, so English was first language but every now and again french was spoken ..two of my friends have french husbands. My aim this year is to go to lessons in england. Hope fully more will stick, but as you say, If you don’t live in the country of the language and use it everyday it is a lot harder.

    I did manage to go out on my own when there, never got lost, and if i did could ask, and went out at night for dinner, queued up like the French ..get a table order my food, a huge thing for me.
    .-= anne´s last blog ..Blogiversary….3 years old today…… =-.

  • http://www.anne-arnott.blogspot.com anne

    A very interesting post. I only know a few words in French, never learnt, but I did notice when I was in Paris for nearly 3 weeks, words came to me, that I didn’t even know that I knew. I was with friends who live there but are from the States, so English was first language but every now and again french was spoken ..two of my friends have french husbands. My aim this year is to go to lessons in england. Hope fully more will stick, but as you say, If you don’t live in the country of the language and use it everyday it is a lot harder.

    I did manage to go out on my own when there, never got lost, and if i did could ask, and went out at night for dinner, queued up like the French ..get a table order my food, a huge thing for me.
    .-= anne´s last blog ..Blogiversary….3 years old today…… =-.

  • http://www.soyezlabienvenuechezmoi.blogspot.com/ Dedene

    I’ve gone through exactly the same evolution. I was a real beginner when arriving in France, so it took me longer to really understand. I still have a bit of a problem expressing my deepest inner feelings in French however.
    Happy anniversary to your blog!
    .-= Dedene´s last blog ..Shame on Me! =-.

  • http://www.soyezlabienvenuechezmoi.blogspot.com Dedene

    I’ve gone through exactly the same evolution. I was a real beginner when arriving in France, so it took me longer to really understand. I still have a bit of a problem expressing my deepest inner feelings in French however.
    Happy anniversary to your blog!
    .-= Dedene´s last blog ..Shame on Me! =-.

  • Nadege

    French is not an easy language to learn and particularly writing it. I have lost a lot of my french but as soon as I go back to France it comes back fast.(I have now lived in the US longer than France). I would thing it takes a good 3 years to feel comfortable living in another country and learning its language.
    Reading books in french will help you even more, particularly the classics (Honore de Balzac, Zola, Dumas, George Sand…).

  • Nadege

    French is not an easy language to learn and particularly writing it. I have lost a lot of my french but as soon as I go back to France it comes back fast.(I have now lived in the US longer than France). I would thing it takes a good 3 years to feel comfortable living in another country and learning its language.
    Reading books in french will help you even more, particularly the classics (Honore de Balzac, Zola, Dumas, George Sand…).

  • http://www.ganzo-n.blogspot.com/ Ganzorig

    Bonjour?

    I’m a mongolian student who studies french. Your french lessons helps me well. And I love reading your blog..

  • http://www.ganzo-n.blogspot.com Ganzorig

    Bonjour?

    I’m a mongolian student who studies french. Your french lessons helps me well. And I love reading your blog..

  • http://www.correresmidestino.com/ Zhu

    Feels good, doesn’t it? :-)

    I had similar experiences coming to Canada and not really speaking English and I still remember what a struggle is was at first. Just making phone calls was a nightmare.

    And now, I can switch back and forth between French, Chinese and English and I can even swear in Spanish!
    .-= Zhu´s last blog ..10 Myths About Canada =-.

  • http://www.correresmidestino.com Zhu

    Feels good, doesn’t it? :-)

    I had similar experiences coming to Canada and not really speaking English and I still remember what a struggle is was at first. Just making phone calls was a nightmare.

    And now, I can switch back and forth between French, Chinese and English and I can even swear in Spanish!
    .-= Zhu´s last blog ..10 Myths About Canada =-.

  • http://emmygration.blogspot.com/ Emmy

    I love this too, but it’s almost a shame that it doesn’t come with fireworks when you realise that you understand 99% ! I deserve those fireworks after all, no?!

  • http://emmygration.blogspot.com Emmy

    I love this too, but it’s almost a shame that it doesn’t come with fireworks when you realise that you understand 99% ! I deserve those fireworks after all, no?!

  • http://www.pagef30.com/ Mithridates

    There definitely is a big difference between spending a few months just studying a language and having to fit it in with regular work-related responsibilities. The only real option when working is to try to create as large blocks of time as possible where you can pretend you’re there as a student – a long weekend here, a week off there. When living in Japan I went off to Korea every chance I had to practice the language as I was studying Korean then but eventually I just quit and decided to spend three months there just studying the language as I was really eager to become fluent as quick as possible. It certainly would have been possible to become fluent without doing that though, it just would have taken a bit longer.

  • http://www.pagef30.com Mithridates

    There definitely is a big difference between spending a few months just studying a language and having to fit it in with regular work-related responsibilities. The only real option when working is to try to create as large blocks of time as possible where you can pretend you’re there as a student – a long weekend here, a week off there. When living in Japan I went off to Korea every chance I had to practice the language as I was studying Korean then but eventually I just quit and decided to spend three months there just studying the language as I was really eager to become fluent as quick as possible. It certainly would have been possible to become fluent without doing that though, it just would have taken a bit longer.

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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