It’s taken me thirty days, living in France, to have this brainwave, but it has finally happened. Or, maybe more accurately, thirty days of often having great craic with Irish people (oh hey comfort zone) and other anglophones, but not really speaking or learning anywhere near as much French as I’d like to.
Anyway, on the night of September 29th, I finally had this epiphany…
What’s the best way for me to improve at French? By not speaking English! Okay, I knew that before – that wasn’t really the epiphany. I’d always known it – I mean for as long as I can remember wanting to learn any language. The idea was only reinforced recently when I read ‘Fluent in 3 Months’ creator, Benny Lewis’s article on the topic, which I recommend if you want more language-learning motivation.
But – and yes, of course there’s a but – believe it or not, that is indeed easier said than done. Especially, when you’re on erasmus, most of your friends are native speakers of English, and most other people you know, or get to know, speak it very well, or at the very least, know some, and can probably converse a little. People also tend to think you’re a bit mental if you just decide you’re not speaking any more English. (Obviously, there are some rules that go with this, namely – I can skype in English, and speak it to anyone from home who visits me, but I’ll get to all that later, probably in a separate post.) Even when people really want to improve at their target language, it just seems a bit crazy to go all out and quit speaking the only language you’re fluent in. At this stage though, I think it’s just all or nothing. It’s easier this way, really.
Right, here’s where my own brainwave comes in… I honestly think it would be extremely difficult to do this without some sort of excuse that people might possibly accept (otherwise I’d probably have started earlier). So, my stroke of genius is, that I’ll bet some money with a few friends that I can avoid speaking English (bear in mind that all the rules of this still have to be worked out) until I leave France to go home for Christmas. That’s only all of October, November, and most of December. It’s not really that long. And I assume that the first week or so will be the most difficult – then after that, it’ll get easier every week. I don’t know how much to bet, but it’s going to be a bet where I’d actually win €0 if I succeeded. I don’t want to win money from people, I just want to learn French. I’ll bet with people, that I can avoid speaking English until my Christmas holidays, and if I lose, I pay them all. I think it would be about a dozen people, so it wouldn’t be much each, but, the total amount will have to be enough to give me more motivation not to lose. The thing is, I don’t plan on losing. I’m not being big-headed and saying I think this will be easy. I just don’t want to just throw money away, that’s not the idea of this, so I’m setting myself what I think is a manageable challenge. In reality, I just think money would just be a bit of an added incentive, and it might make life easier if people want me to speak English, and I’m able to say that actually, I stand to lose a lot of money I really can’t afford to lose if I do, so I can’t.
And it’s not a thing that I’m going to expect people to speak French to me. Ideally, they would, but if English is their native language, then fine, I understand English, and if they’re here on erasmus too then we both have some level of French so we can all understand each other. If there’s an extreme communication barrier at times, as there will be, I can switch to my broken Irish with the Irish students, or try Spanish with anyone who speaks it, seeing as I now seem to find it easier to speak than French. Sign language, gestures, drawings, whatever, if I’m feeling really determined to use zero English (I think being allowed to ask in French how to say a word in English is just logical, and makes it easier for anyone trying to deal with my attempts to communicate with them). If people just want to practice their English with me too, even though the idea of them being here is probably to learn French, and they’re truly adamant about learning English, then fine. I won’t lie, I won’t be happy about it, but with English it’s kind of inevitable, so if I still get to speak French, or even Spanish to them, and they respond in English, I’ll still learn something from speaking a language other than English. I can live with that.
Another key exception I should point out straight away is that I’m going to play sort of by the rules (or rule, really) of the gaeltacht I went to a few years ago – one full sentence in English (or in that case, a language other than Irish) is not allowed. I also believe that the young gaeilgeoirs got a warning if that happened, and were then kicked out, but I’m not sure if I’ll add that, I suppose it’s a good idea… The main thing though is, if I accidentally react to something by saying something along the lines of “yeah”, “what?”, or “shite!”, in English, and then realise and go back to French – it doesn’t count – stuff like that is almost impossible to avoid at the start, at least.
A lot of people might think this idea is crazy, stupid, or just plain annoying if you’re unfortunate enough to be an English-speaker on erasmus with me (le sozz, guys), but I think it’s crazy to study French (or any language) for as long as I have, study it in college, and then go on erasmus in France – it also happening to be your first time in France – and not doing your best to speak the language as much as possible. For me it would just be such a wasted opportunity, and such a waste of time and money.
I decided to start as soon as October arrived – literally at midnight last night, I stopped speaking English. I even tested it out a little before that – mainly warning people that I was going to start speaking French to them, explaining myself, and speaking French with some of them to see how strange or difficult it was. And it was very odd. But it was possible. We could converse. We could understand each other (most of the time). And most people I tried speaking French to wanted to practise it too, but like me, hadn’t spoken it as much as they’d like to yet. So when I brought it up, and awkwardly switched to French with people, it got them responding in French, even if it was only for a few minutes. It’s a start. And it’s shown me that it’s possible for me to do this. So I think I will.
I guess I’ll keep you posted. Hopefully it’ll be a succès.
PS: Like a lot of challenges, I guess if I tell enough people what I plan on doing, then it’s an extra incentive to go for it, ’cause it would be kind of mortifying if I kept telling everyone about this, and then failed spectacularly. So if you’re wondering why on earth I’m sharing this spiel, there you go. I just want to add possible embarrassment to the mix so I’ll work harder at avoiding English.