5 things that kept me going when learning French got really, really hard

20 years ago, I came to France for my (then) girlfriend. She was already working whereas I was just a student. It was easier for me to come to France as I had time before I was supposed to go back to the UK to start a degree at Warwick University. I ended up only spending one year there and transferred to the Sorbonne, luckily managing to retain my year’s credit. From then on my life was settled and I’ve been here ever since.

Those are the main events but they hide the struggles while I was learning French. They hide the fact that when you see your girlfriend, the woman you love, discuss and laugh in a language you don’t understand, then you panic a bit that she might be a lot happier if you could speak it too. They hide the fact that a country whose language and culture you don’t understand can seem like a hostile place. They hide the fact that you constantly feel judged for your poor accent, for your mistakes and for your perceived lack of intelligence. They hide the fact that you lose confidence in yourself when you used to be an outgoing, fun and sociable guy and at social gatherings you feel useless as you can’t understand half of what is said.

But I eventually got there. I got to a place when people say they remember how bad I was. How they remember me arriving in France with no vocabulary and no speaking skills. Even now, the fact I had spent 7 years learning French at school is met with disbelief. They’re convinced I couldn’t even say “Bonjour”.

So what about the journey? What kept me going?

People say that motivation is obviously the key, much like it is for any learning process. The more motivated you are, the more likely you are to keep going until you succeed. But I think there’s a difference between being motivated and being capable to just keep on going. Being motivated brings images of eager runners in their first marathon. I was stuck – I had to get better, or I would well, just get worse. But not worse in French, worse in everything.  It felt like my ability to speak French was fundamentally linked to my ability to actually succeed in my life.

So here are the 5 things that kept me going throughout the hard times.

My fear I would never understand my girlfriend

When I met her, my girlfriend (now wife) was living in the States and so she spoke fluent English. In a sense, as long as we weren’t in France, there was no need for me to speak in French with her. But when I saw her with her family and friends, I realised that there was a side to her I didn’t know. I could see that her personality in English was also a lot different to her personality in French, much like many bilingual people. I wanted to know who that person was. I wanted to know if she was as an amazing person in French as she was in English. But I also wanted her to respect me. I even wanted to win an argument in French! I wanted to hold a conversation in French with her and her family. I wanted her to be proud of me.

I had to speak French to get my degree

For the first 6 months of my degree at the Sorbonne, I didn’t speak. Not even English. I sat at the back of the class and tried to retain as much as I could. At the top of the blank page of each writing assignment, the first thing I did was to apologise in advance for my mistakes. Most of the time I had no idea what I was doing. The first time I raised my hand, the whole class turned around to look. I actually answered a question rather than ask one as well (correctly, as it turned out). But those 6 months were so long. For weeks it felt like nothing had changed, that my brain was just ignoring all attempts at learning. Worse, exams meant oral dissertations, and I could literally not think of anything worse than doing a presentation in French about a subject I could barely understand. French universities also have a lot of their lectures in amphitheatres – basically areas for me to spend lots of time zoning out and thinking of other things. But I needed to speak to get my degree and it was comforting when one of my teachers told me I should go on to study a 4th year and specialise in Shakespeare. (I didn’t, I’d had enough of studying and went to look for a job).

I felt lonely

The first time I didn’t feel lonely in France was in an English pub. I literally had not realised how lonely I had been feeling. When my girlfriend was out at work, I used to think that I was doing well in my own company, but it was only when I drank a few pints, joked about the French and watched football on the TV with some other expats that I realised how hard it had been. As I started going to the pub more and more, I knew that I would never stop feeling English. It was too engrained in my DNA. But I also knew I didn’t want to go back to the UK.

At the pub there were different types of expats – those that were living there temporarily and would move on; those that were constantly travelling; those that shunned the French and had bizarrely become even more English while in France, and then those like me that were just trying to make a decent stab at it all. I could see how hard it was for them too. A lot of other cultures that have a more “international” outlook – who think of English as a necessary tool like knowing how to drive – they don’t understand how hard it can be for the English to learn a language. We’re brought up knowing our language is the most powerful and the most used. So to have to force our brains to really learn a new language can sometimes feel wrong. I eventually grew up and out of the pub because it was a shield from a lot of real life. I also knew I would always be lonely if I didn’t learn French and have proper French friends too.

I didn’t want to be taken advantage of

It took me a long time to stop asking my wife to negotiate for me, or to handle any negative situation in French. I spent years feeling like as soon as I opened my mouth, I was presenting the image of a stupid, rich English foreigner who would be easy to make fun of, or rip off, etc. What can you do when you think the plumber is charging too much? What can you do if someone hits your car and then claims he didn’t? What can you do when you receive an invoice for something you didn’t ask for? What can you do when you know someone is laughing at you but you don’t have the skills or confidence to make fun of them too? I’m making it out as though this was a huge thing in my life. It wasn’t – most of the time I was just fine – but I knew that in certain difficult situations I would not be comfortable and I didn’t want to have to rely on others. It’s a good feeling speaking perfect French and knowing I have the skills to take control if I need to.

I wanted to find something funny in French

Those who follow my blog know I like a laugh. I also like to make other people laugh. If I were ever to write a film (my ultimate dream) it would definitely be a comedy. The English have a particular sense of humour that I love. We do self-depreciation better than anyone. The French not so much. So many of my jokes for so many years just fell flat. So many of their jokes just left me bewildered. I can recall the times when I understood the joke, didn’t find it funny, and saw everyone laughing their pants off to such an extent that I was wondering if I didn’t understand it after all. So it was a relief when I started laughing for the first time at “Le Diner des Cons”. Really laughing, losing myself in the moment. It was like I was let into a secret club and suddenly I understood what was going on. I’m not saying that I find everything funny (and it still grates on me that the French love Mr Bean and Benny Hill more than Blackadder and Fawlty Towers) but at least I’m not out in the rain looking through the window anymore.

There we have it. These are all quite personal and I’m sure that if you’re in a foreign country you have your own reasons to keep going too. I won’t patronise you by saying “learning a language takes time”. But I will say that the negative feelings inside you, the ones that push down your confidence and make you question your self-worth: they’re all completely normal. Accept them, embrace them and know that they are a part of you. When you lose yourself in a foreign conversation, or in front of a foreign film, or in an argument with your foreign partner, and then you realise that you had forgotten you were doing it all in a foreign language, well that’s the true measure of your success as a language learner.

I’d be interested to know if this hits home. What keeps you going as a language learner in a foreign country?

By-line – Ryan Harrison is the founder of Love France, Learn French. It is a blog dedicated to helping adult French learners with sometimes funny and sometimes educational posts. You can also find his guide to the top 100 sites, blogs and resource pages to learn French online for free.

You might also like: