So why learn French?

Jill Penton-Browne asks that question yet again

road signSurely, many among our enlightened readership will say, that’s a no-brainer. Anyone who chooses to live in another country will surely realise that learning the local language is a priority. Not so. I’ve lived here for thirty years and over those three decades I’ve met quite a few like – well, let’s call them Reg and Vera. They settled in the Var about four years ago and in that time they’ve managed almost no improvement in their initially almost non-existent French. “We’re old dogs,” chuckles Reg (they’re both in their late fifties), “and we’re not up to learning new tricks. We get by easily enough. No problems, really.” An unusual attitude? Sadly, no. Our colleagues at French News did a survey of their readers, mainly in the west of France, and found that twenty per cent spoke almost no French and said they didn’t want to learn. And not all of them were “old dogs”, by any means.

An obvious potential victim

So why, yet again (and briefly), should anyone coming to live in France make an effort with the language? First, look at it from our hosts’ point of view, discussed in a following article. The French are deeply attached to their language and irritated if they suspect a foreigner has a negative attitude towards it. I started out here with very schoolgirl French but I always made an effort and quickly improved. However, from the beginning I realised that those I spoke to usually appreciated my good intentions and were friendly and encouraging. A boneheaded insistence on speaking English gets you nowhere.

Secondly, as well as enabling you to make a good first impression on the locals, the rewards of speaking French are very tangible. Once you’ve got a reasonable basis in the language practical problems – anywhere from the pharmacy through the school office to the service station – are much more easily resolved (that good first impression helps, of course). And another point: this is an area with a lot of dodgy people (that’s why we call it la Côte d’Arnaque – the Rip-off Riviera). If you speak little or no French you’re like a lamb to the slaughter, an obvious potential victim. You’ll make the day of a Nice taxi-driver, for example, if it’s apparent that your French is very poor. Finally, there’s friendship. Reg and Vera seem to know only other Brits. “We don’t feel comfortable with people who don’t speak English,” admits Vera. She doesn’t seem to realise that these same people – living in their own country – wouldn’t feel comfortable with her.

Daily life ... a permanent language laboratory

If you’re like Reg and Vera, what to do about it? This isn’t a consumer feature on language courses but I would stress that just “picking up” French is not all that easy. Most people need some formal help with the basics. I went to a private teacher for a few months which was a great help (several good ones advertise in our classified pages). That being said, if you’re living here it’s a rather different case from if you’re trying to learn in Harwich or Hoboken. Your daily life can offer you a permanent language laboratory. Just get out there and talk. You won’t just learn the language but also a lot about what makes the French tick as you note the sort of things they talk about. After a while you’ll find they’ll begin to include you in the conversation. And supplement your direct social encounters by watching French television. A lot of it’s junk (as everywhere these days) but you’ll pick up on many things and you’ll also find what’s on la télé is a popular topic of conversation. “We never miss the repeats of Only Fools and Horses on BBC 1,” Reg tells me. A good show, certainly, but he can’t share his enjoyment with his varois neighbours.


From Riviera Reporter Issue 127: June/July 2008
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