I love France – but I can’t actually speak French

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Tuesday 10th April 2012

I had an inspiring French teacher at school called Miss Burgess. She drilled me so well that more than 30 years later I can still remember the words for an armchair (un fauteuil) and a spoon (une cuillère).

The problem is that even though my brain is stuffed full of Miss Burgess’s vocabulary and I can read French pretty well, I can’t actually speak the language. When I’m in France I understand the gist of what everyone’s saying but by the time I’ve worked out how to reply, it’s five minutes too late and the conversation has moved on. I’m far too hung up on getting my verb endings right when I should be gabbling away regardless.

One of my most embarrassing moments came when the painter arrived to decorate. The moment I shook his hand my mind went completely blank and I couldn’t think of any French words at all. It took a few second before something popped into my head. “Au revoir,” I spluttered. Oh dear. It didn’t go down well.

I reckon the best way to learn French is to concentrate on speaking it from the word go. I’ve just received a copy of a brilliant new book for children called My First 100 French Words and wish it had been around when I was little. Written by Catherine Bruzzone and Louise Millar and illustrated by Clare Beaton, it lists 100 basic words – from numbers and colours to toys and transport – and gives a simple pronunciation guide for each one.  It’s a fun way to introduce young children to speaking a new language – and great for grown-ups too in fact!

My First 100 French Words by Catherine Bruzzone and Louise Millar (b small publishing, £5.99)

6 comments so far

  • I love French and regret very much that my French is going rusty with the passage of time. I now go to Italy when I would in the past have gone to France.

    I’ve always thought that verbs are the key to speaking a language. A dictionary will give you the nouns, and I always have a pocket dictionary in my handbag when abroad, but without the verbs you can’t do more than just list nouns, changing your voice inflection when you do so, and using gestures. Could get you into a compromising situation, that.

    Liz X

  • Having just got back from 10 days in France, where I had to deal with a plumbing nightmare (result of 30 girls flushing their gite loos too often), the mechanic who mended the rowing club truck which had problems I didn’t know the words for in English, culminating with a power failure at my parents yesterday, when I was talked through how to repair it over the phone and failed – although in fact a lovely edf man came and changed a broken mechanism in the meter less than 2 hours later, I feel my French is possibly better than I usually give myself credit. It is lovely to be home and not worry about the cotton wool feeling that starts up every time I start a sentence in French!

  • It definitely could, Liz! And I agree with you about verbs. The trouble is that I’m so worried about getting the verb endings right that I stop in mid-sentence and then can’t get the rest of what I was trying to say sorted…

  • I’m in awe, Linsey. The thought of explaining plumbing problems and how to get a boat truck mended – in French! – gives me nightmares! Hope the house purchase is looking promising…

  • I learnt ‘real’ French by spending lots of time in France with my pen friend Genevieve, who I wasn’t too keen on. We spent lots of holidays in each others countries, and my spoken French is much better than written. I think you are right Emma, as I am not worried about my grammar and just give it a go it’s seems to help. And of course my vocabulary and accent gets better with wine….

    But I am not smug, as I find the letters I receive from Genevieve’s extended family daunting!

  • I wish my spoken French was as good as yours, Sheena. I definitely think it’s more important to be able to speak French than write it or conjugate verbs. In the summer I’m going to remember your advice and just give it a go!

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