We’re often asked how is it learning a new language and surely, it must help being immersed in the country? Well, yes and no. One challenge is that in our corner of Gers, few French people speak English. Indeed, for the older generation, French might be their second language if they grew up speaking Gascon, a dialect of Occitan – perhaps closer to Catalan than French. And just to show you how different that is, the Gascon word for hello, and indeed for goodbye is ‘adishatz’ rather than the ‘bonjour’ and ‘au revoir’ learned in french class.
Another challenge is that the French simply don’t practice with the same text books – so when I said confidently to a neighbour “Il fait beau, aujourd’hui” (the weather is nice today) what I was expecting was “Oui, il fait beau” – not a five minute assessment that actually whilst the weather is indeed lovely, it has been dry for some time and in fact the gardens would appreciate it if there was a little rain…
I really do believe it to be the case that French people care greatly about their language. Which perhaps explains why so many are reduced to tears when we try to converse; sometimes happy tears for despite our many faux pas, we are at least trying, sometimes sad tears as a lyrical, expressive language is reduced to ineffective shrugs as we desperately search for words, once learned but long forgotten.
Saskia certainly has an advantage as she was an attentive student in her younger days, although as she has often highlighted, it is some leap from “Où est la gare?” or “Je voudrais deux croissants, s’il vous plait” to completing a tax form, or trying to arrange an MOT for the car. It is outrageous that these situations barely featured on the curriculum…As for Andrew, well he wasn’t an attentive student and whilst being able to recite bands and record titles from the 70’s and 80’s with great efficiency, any memory of French classes has long since faded.
The local accent is another surprise. Here in Gers, many words have a token ‘g’ added on in pronunciation. So ‘bien’ sounds like ‘bieng’ and ‘pain’ sounds like ‘paing’, which can really throw you off course when you’re trying to follow a conversation between locals.
But we do try (we both take French lessons, along with lots of home study) and that is so appreciated. When walking into a shop, ‘bonjour’, ‘s’il vous plaît’ and ‘merci’ – delivered with a smile – is 100% better than being a grumpy English speaker that points at things and doesn’t try to engage – approach a French shopkeeper that way and don’t be surprised if you find yourself at the back of a long queue – even if you’re the only one in the shop !
For those more confident in their language skills, most situations in France can be covered with a thoughtful, “Oui, c’est tres compliqué” – “Yes, this is very complicated” – France is a complex country and this answer is almost always appropriate !
We are blessed to have the best neighbours – Gers is famous for its warm welcome and lovely people – our neighbours gently encourage us and introduce us to real France. So in that sense, yes it is so much easier learning the language, with a bottle of red shared with friends…