“Bonjour, je prends un café americano, s’il vous plaît.”
A look of confusion comes across the barista’s face. “I have espresso or café allongé.”
“Alors un café allongé, s’il vous plaît.”
There are two issues with this conversation.
First, doesn’t every barista in the world know what an americano is?! Apparently not. France now has the distinction of being the only country I have ever been to where ordering an americano does not work. What I ended up getting was in fact an americano, just French-ified with the word “allongé” – “stretched”.
Second, either my accent or my request for “American coffee”, or both, gave me away as American, and the barista chose to speak to me only in English despite my responding in French.
Fail. At least I got my coffee. ☕️
Practicing a foreign language can be discouraging, but practicing and having conversations is the only way to improve. It’s when things go wrong, such as in the conversation above, that you learn new things. I learned, for example, some practical new vocabulary, and also that I need to work on my accent more. This is exactly why I chose to spend some time in France taking French classes at the Institut Linguistique Adenet.
But this conversation was just one of many ways that I got practice speaking French during my recent stay in France. There were several other opportunities that I made use of as well.
1. In Class
Obviously, the classroom is a great place to practicing speaking French. The classes were held entirely in French and all of my interactions with my teacher and classmates were in French. I can’t even be sure that everyone in the class spoke English – there was a very diverse mix of students coming from all over Europe and the Americas. You can read more about the ILA classes in my other update post.
2. Everyday Interactions
Like my attempt to order an americano, there are many small everyday interactions that at first can be intimidating in a foreign language: ordering at a restaurant/café/bar, talking to a cashier, buying and loading a tram card, responding to random questions from strangers, and so on. At first, I was hesitant. But, I knew that I could handle the majority of these situations, so I made an effort to begin all of my everyday interactions in French even if the other person was likely to speak English.
3. Host Family
My accommodation in Montpellier was in the home of a French host family. With the family members, I spoke only in French, which gave me the opportunity to have more in-depth everyday conversations. I found that discussing household tasks, schedules, and meals were very good ways to increase practical vocabulary and also build confidence for spontaneous speaking. In addition, the evening meal provided a consistent means to speak on a variety of topics.
4. Language Exchanges
Using apps such as Meetup and Couchsurfing, I found language exchange events in Montpellier to attend. A language exchange is simply a conversation in which two people who are learning each other’s language mutually benefit by practicing with each other. There are many French people in Montpellier who are eager to practice speaking English, and many foreigners who are learning French at Montpellier’s numerous language schools. As a result, the events I participated in were well-attended and I was able to have substantial conversations in French with a variety of people.
To really push myself to practice speaking French, I went on several day trips conducted solely in French. The language school, ILA, offers excursions every weekend, and I joined their guided trips to the cheese-making town of Roquefort and the historic city of Avignon.
On top of that, I visited Marseille and Paris to see the cities and catch up with a friend I had not seen in several years. Previously, we had only spoken English with each other as we were surrounded by other English-speaking friends. This time, though, I requested that we speak only in French – I got some great practice, and my friend was happy to have a break from thinking about English!
Finally, I signed up for a locally-run tour of the countryside around Montpellier, and in this case, English was not even an option – the guide did not speak much English. This turned out to be a great tour. We had no problems understanding each other, and I got to visit some cool places off the beaten path!
A Good Start
During my month in Montpellier I got a lot of great practice speaking French in a variety of situations. I made some progress in both my speaking ability and my French-speaking confidence. However, there is still a long way to go, so I will have to find ways to ensure that I don’t go for seven years again without practicing!
8 thoughts on “French Immersion Update 1: Speaking”
When I was in Montpellier in 2002, 2003, and 2004, it was relatively rare to find English speakers outside of the expected spots like the English and Irish pubs. I didn’t visit again for over ten years, but in 2015 and 2016 there were decidedly more English speakers around. Still, I found it easier to practice French in Montpellier than, say, Paris.
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That’s interesting to hear, but I’m not surprised. More and more people in France are learning English nowadays. And since Montpellier is a student city, there are a lot of young people, who are more likely to speak English anyway. But I agree that people in Montpellier seem to be more willing to speak French than the people in Paris!
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I agree that the only way to improve is through having conversations but that it is also the most painful. However once you get over the initial fact that you are never going to sound like yourself at the start of any language learning process than in fact you get more than just words and phrases out of it, you actually get the confidence to begin to exist in another linguistic world. 🙂
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