This magazine devotes much of each issue to cultural aspects of French life. But when we think of that culture we understandably reflect on France’s finer points: its world-renowned cuisine, its splendid wines, its great literature, its inventive cinema and so on… in short, the products of its people’s “savoir faire” and “savoir vivre!”
But “culture” means much more than that. Fundamentally it refers to the distinctive way of life of a people – and no more distinctive way of life can be encountered than in France, whether it be in the cheap and cheerful bistros up and down the land or at the sumptuous Opéra Garnier in Paris’ opulent 7th arrondissement.
Superficial access to the country’s cultural kaleidoscope can be had through visiting France, of course as many times as possible. But to savour fully the richness of the cultural brew, there is no substitute for living there, if only for a few weeks or months a year (or over 25 years as we have!)
Nonetheless, and it is the same in all societies, it is only through knowing its people that you can truly appreciate what France has given and continues to give the world. And to do that you really have to speak its language!
Unfortunately, the British in particular do not truly understand the need any more to learn other languages: isn’t English the world’s “lingua franca”? Well, no. Not in France at least! The French are just as monoglot and they expect us to understand their language, just as we expect them to understand ours. And, chances are, even if you meet French people who know how to speak English, they will stubbornly stick to theirs. It is their superiority complex, you understand!
So how do we maintain this “entente cordiale” when they will not speak English and we cannot speak French? (Only 10,000 18 year olds sat “A-level” French in Britain in 2014, the lowest total on record). Answer: we have got to start learning it. If we really want to access their extraordinary cultural heritage and traditions we have very little choice. But how?
My forty-plus years of travelling, working and living in France has led me to view French as a three-legged stool, “un tabouret à trois pieds”.
The first of those legs is words and, in a perfect world, as many words as possible. My excellent French-English dictionary has about 650,000 different words in it – but that is a lot to learn before you go off to that 3 month art appreciation course at Giverny! In truth, most people have a working knowledge of about 5,000 words and for many that is enough for life. For that 3 month art course, you will probably only need about 900 words of French – but not all at once. If you went with, say, 200 words and stayed for 90 days, you would need to pick up the rest at the rate of, say, eight words a day. Now that is not too demanding, is it?!
The second leg is usage: “use it or lose it” as the saying has it. But this is where we Brits in particular struggle: we are terrified of opening our mouths lest we make a mistake. But you know, the French make plenty of mistakes themselves in their language (as we do in English). I have some very well educated French friends who sometimes betray a resounding ignorance of their language’s grammatical subtleties.
However, since you will only need to use 900 words in total over 90 days, usage will become less and less of a problem over time. Mistakes you make in week one, say, will have disappeared in week two – repetitive use of the same words, day in, day out, will soon take care of that little problem. With use, language becomes very predictable, because repetition quickly reveals the structure of the language and the words that you will therefore need to use.
Of course, some of the words you will need to use will be nouns, physical things like “paint-brush” and abstract nouns like “colour”. Then you will need a few adjectives, words like “beautiful”, for example. You will also need a small handful of personal pronouns, words like “I” and “you”. Some prepositions will help, too, words like “in” and “on” for example. And to string a few phrases and sentences together you will need the odd conjunction or two, words like “but” and “however”, for example. By now, I hope, you are beginning to get my drift. This little lot might total as few as a hundred. So what is left?
Well, I have not yet thrown in any adverbs, words like “beautifully” or “quickly”. And you will also need the odd participle, present participles such as “painting” and past participles such as “painted”. But frankly, I am beginning to run out of parts of speech, yet we have scarcely identified more than a few hundred words you will need to see this course through right to the end. Except one…
Verbs: You will also need a few verbs! But again, not many. You will certainly need to know what I call the “killer” verbs (I reckon there are twenty-one of these; and amongst these you will need to know what I call the “serial killer” verbs, of which there are only four: “être” (to be), “avoir” (to have), “faire” (to do or to make) and “aller” (to go).
Mind you, you will need to be able to conjugate them in at least two tenses, the present tense and a past tense called the imperfect. If you learned these at school, no problems. If not, you will quickly pick them up.
By now, of course, you are beginning to see the third leg of that stool and without which it simply would not stand up: grammar! Yes, I know, that word may already be striking terror in your heart, particularly if you are under thirty, because no grammar seems to be taught in schools anymore – not even English grammar!
Now, I cannot pretend that French grammar is exactly a walk in the park: even the French think it is damned difficult; that is why they often get it wrong. But all that I am talking about here is the relevant grammar, the rules that will allow you to put together sentences in some sort of logical, structured order. For example:
“J’aime Picasso. Mais j’aime mieux Kandinsky” (I like Picasso. But I prefer Kandinsky). Here we have:
- two proper nouns, “Picasso” and “Kandinsky”
- one personal pronoun, “J’(e)”
- one conjunction, “mais”
- one adverb, “mieux” and…
- one verb, “aime” (from “aimer”, to like or to love)
Now it should not be difficult to put sentences like these in place in week one, should it? If not, just imagine what you will be able to say at the end of three months!
But if you already love France even only half as much as I do, you will want to live there, maybe permanently one day. Even then, though, your French will only progress “au fur et a mesure”, as you go along. But your vocabulary will build, your fluency will grow with usage – and your knowledge of grammatical rules will increasingly structure your ever more sophisticated powers of expression.
But none of this will happen by osmosis: being there will not be enough. (I know some Brits in our neck of the woods who, having lived permanently in France for more than ten years, still cannot (or will not) order a cup of coffee in French. Such people deserve to be forcibly repatriated!)
No, you will need to knuckle down. If you want to be accepted, even admired, by the French around you, here are my four “killer” tips for ultimate excellence in spoken French:
First, recognise that there is no one method that will suit all learning styles; and you may have to experiment with several before discovering what best suits you. Some like face-to-face tuition; others prefer books, tapes, discs, videos, films, music… and so on.
Second, understand that there are no quick fixes out there. Forget all that “French in 3 weeks” nonsense. I started “ab initio” at 27 (Welsh and Latin were my foreign languages at school!) by taking public exams, GCSE and then “A-level” French as an extra incentive to work hard at it. That, part-time obviously, took me three years and gave me a very solid grammatical foundation for the further developments of my conversational French. Then I got into tapes, discs, books and so on. I began reading French novels (relatively easy ones at first by Marcel Pagnol, for example – but also Georges Simenon’s “Maigret” novels which really are a very enjoyable breeze with an extraordinarily limited vocabulary). And I also began watching classic French films by Truffaut, Godard, and the rest. More recently, films like “Amélie”, I have found very helpful indeed. By such methods, my conversational powers gradually increased.
Third, do not be seduced by the contextual approach to the language (“at the bakers”, “at the airport”, “at the restaurant” etc). To acquire enough French successfully to manage all the contexts you will encounter, you would need a vocabulary stretching into several thousand words.
Fourth, focus not on the context but on the structure of the language and the important parts of speech and vocabulary that are required in all contexts, not just some. Focus on what you need to know and say, not what it would be nice to know and say. Focus above all on verbs: these are the beating heart of language; and not many verbs are needed to make the heart of language beat loudly and strongly – twenty-one by my reckoning as I have already said. Yes, you will eventually need to know them intimately, in all their colloquial, idiomatic and literal applications. But this is for the long run. Get started on those four “serial killer” verbs I mentioned earlier. You will be amazed by how much French you will know and, more importantly, be able to say.
So, get cracking now – “allez-y!” – and do not give up when it starts getting difficult. No language is easy; and do not believe anyone who pretends that it is. But the rewards for making the effort will be with you for life, not just for three months!
Derek Davies is the author if a revolutionary new approach to learning French, “The Siffler Syndrome: How to Speak Amazing French with only 21 Killer Verbs”.