The Language

Problems and Progress

French-speaking countriesSpeaking French is a worry to many visiting France and the question "How do you get on with the language" is often asked of me. The concern is understandable; in country districts like the Lot & Garonne few people speak English, and the French is often fast and expressed in a strong Gascon accent.

I cheated by starting with a reasonable, if rusty, knowledge of French; the first hoop I had to jump through was sitting through the reading of umpteen pages of the sale document on my house during the Acte de Vente. Fortunately I'd had time to read through it beforehand and to look up the more peculiar legal phraseology; moreover the estate agent was Dutch and thus spoke fluent English and could help us.

I have found that my vocabulary has improved enormously since we arrived; this is because the use of French in real situations is a much better way of learning - also one's memory of many of the words is refreshed at frequent intervals. At my advanced age no longer do I remember things forever - words I learnt a year ago I would recognise but may not be able to recall them for use. On the other hand the French I learnt at 16 I can still remember!

The speed of delivery is very important; I understand only 25% or so of local-accented speech at normal conversational speed, but can increase that to 100% if people slow down for me. Sometimes I look back on a long, technical conversation about, say, chainsaws, and am amazed that it was conducted all in French, all of which both parties understood! It has to be said, however, that I am far better linguistically equipped for the DIY store than the cocktail party, but then, I'm the same in English too!

Reading, of course, is a lot easier; I'm starting to read French novels and I understand them without translating because I'm thinking in French - "une maison près d'un lac" gives me a mental image for which I don't need the English. Reading official letters is fairly straightforward once you've learned any special usage. When writing letters to officials I often cheat by using grammar checkers to get all the tenses correct.

At long last we've now got a French TV service on our main TV, using the new digital terrestrial television service (TNT) radiated from the Pic du Midi in the Pyrénées.

Christine started with no knowledge of French, but now she understands a considerable amount. She handles everyday transactions, like shopping in the veggie market, with consummate ease, and most of the old market traders will perk up when confronted with a pretty face. She now attends regular classes on Monday mornings and also has had informal private tuition with our polyglot neighbour Jean, plus conversation with Ingë who is German but who speaks French slowly and clearly. These sessions have boosted her comprehension enormously and I'm continually amazed at how much she can understand.

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