Our Journey to Become Fluent in French

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As aspiring francophiles, Jordan and I are arguably in the best position to learn French. The hardest part is already done! By moving to France, we have immersed ourselves in the French language and culture. Or immersed ourselves as much as we can, following the constantly changing COVID restrictions. Our friends ask us if we are fluent in French yet, but it’s not as simple as it seems. After sixty hours of class under our belts, here’s what our journey to become fluent in French looks like.

We each have around 100 worksheets printed and sitting on our coffee table. Mine, with notes and details written in the empty white space. Jordan’s, blank with limited information. It’s clear we have different learning styles. It’s hard to keep up all the documents straight. I keep one of the first worksheets we were provided, a list of six verbs and their conjugations, at the top for reference. I use this sheet the most, almost like a crutch. Over the past six months, I have added all the tenses we have learned on this sheet. This is my main cheat-sheet, and I look at it every single class.

french documents used in class to help become fluent in french
Some of our french class documents.

Our French instructor thinks both of us are funny, so I guess that’s why she puts up with all of our mistakes. She patiently corrects us when we pronounce something wrong, which is often. For the life of me, I cannot pronounce “un” correctly. She forces us to speak French; Jordan will usually try to say something in English, and she will cut him off. “En français, Jordan!” our instructor will exclaim. At that point, I laugh because I know neither of us could say exactly what we want to in French.

The hour-long class consists of learning new things, practicing the old, and trying to be conversational. Our instructor will always ask us about our day, our weekend, or what we will be doing the next weekend. We can cheat and prepare in advance for these conversations. 

But many times, we cannot prepare in advance, and that is for the best! We will have to role-play based on something we just learned. Jordan will be a car salesman, and I will be looking to buy a new car. Or I will be a vendor, and Jordan will be looking to purchase a new jacket. I even upsold Jordan into “purchasing” a new shirt with his jacket in our conversation (because the fictional shirt matched his eyes, of course)

french class with an instructor to help become fluent in french.
A typical french class. Papers everywhere. Heads hurting.

We have been taught six different tenses, and none of them are easy. Each one makes my head hurt differently. There’s one for the present, three for the past, and two for the future. If we just get close, we think others will know what I mean. But not always. 

On our recent stay in Gap, France, we had to state our room number in the morning for breakfast. It was 115: cent quinze. Jordan said our number, but the employee did not understand it. I repeated the number, “cent quinze,” and he looked confused. It wasn’t until we showed him our room key with the number 115 that he said, “ah, cent quinze.” Just as we had pronounced it! Maybe he had a slightly different inflection, but to me, it sounded the exact same. It should have been an easy conversation, but it wasn’t. It rarely is.

Most of the time, I am not even listening to what the person is saying. I’m too focused on what my response is going to be. There are certain situations where I can expect the same conversation, and I can plan ahead for it. Like at the boulangerie. The typical interaction is the same and does not change. Here’s what a trip at the boulangerie looks like for me.

Employee: Bonjour (Hello)

Me: Bonjour, je voudrais deux pain au chocolat. (Hi, I would like two chocolate croissants.)

Employee: D’accord. Ç’est tout? (Ok. Is that all?)

Me: Aussi, je voudrais une baguette traditional s’il vous plaît. (Also, I would like one baguette please.)

Me: Ç’est tout. (That’s all.)

Employee: Trois euro cinquante. (3.50 EUR)

Me: Par carte. (Paying by card)

Me and Employee: Merci, au revoir, et bonne journée. (Thanks, goodbye, have a good day)

Well, that’s what it would look like if I had a great French accent. I can pass for French until I open my mouth, and then the cat is out of the bag! But as much as I try, my accent definitely screams, “she is not from here!”

When I state the quantity, I also hold up my fingers to show how many I want. Even then, somehow, when I say “deux,” it sounds like “un.” Sometimes I go back and forth on the quantity with the employee and my fingers don’t help.

Learn how to count to five in French. These hand signals are used when counting, and are especially helpful at a boulangerie.
(you can pin this by hovering over the image and clicking ‘pin it’)

Don’t get me wrong; these actions are generally smooth. There’s only been a time or two where I am asked something unexpected. I go off of context clues and also use my hands to help communicate. Or, I just say “Ç’est tout,” and it usually works. I really should focus more on listening.

But it isn’t always smooth sailing like at the boulangerie. At times, I feel like I am paying a premium to make an uncomfortable situation go away. After a week of procrastinating, I went to the local pharmacy around the corner. I had a new prescription and needed to get it filled. Easy, right? My other medication had only been around five euros, and I expected this cost to be the same. I walked up to the desk and handed the woman my prescription. It was at that moment I knew this would not be an easy transaction. 

My last trip to the pharmacy left me in tears because I had not been prepared with my sécurité sociale (verification of health insurance). I was determined this trip would be smoother. I had my sécurité sociale number ready with the prescription. The woman pushed it back to me, and I didn’t understand why; I wrongly assumed all medications would be covered by this magical number. She said something to me, and this is where I should have started listening. But, I was too busy trying to think of how to respond to understand what she said.

I don’t know what got in me, but I started talking in French like a caveman would. “Other medicine bad. New medicine good”. Or something like that. I realized that I do not speak French well under pressure! It didn’t end there. I started saying weird things in French. The pharmacist let me fumble around for a minute and then went to the back room. She brought out two options and gave me the prices. Again, here’s me with the poor listening! I honestly have no idea what she said but chose the non-generic option. 42 EUR later, I was out of there!  

visual representation of learning french
A visual representation of what I think I looked like at the pharmacy.

I don’t always have the opportunity to prepare my monologue ahead of time. After the pharmacy, I go back to the apartment, ready to tell Jordan about my successful trip. Not five minutes later, there’s a knock on our door. We live in a secure building on the top floor. I figured if anyone was there during the middle of the day, they had a reason to be. When I answer the door, on the other side are two volunteers with a clipboard. I was not prepared for this conversation. 

The volunteer needed to speak to someone in French, so I told him (in French) that I was not the best person and apologized. He asked about Jordan, and I laughed and said that he also didn’t speak French. We aren’t that fluent in french to have a conversation with a volunteer about who knows what! We said our goodbyes, and I shut the door. But this was not the end of the volunteers. Two minutes later, we hear a noise that we have never heard before. Apparently, we have a doorbell! I go back to the door, confused why they would be ringing our apartment again. 

The volunteers had tried to go down the stairs but quickly learned that someone had left the ceiling door to the roof open. It was a rainy day, and water was pouring into the stairwell! The volunteer notified me of the issue, but what was I supposed to do? I told him, “Desole. Je ne sais pas. Pas de probleme pour moi.” Basically, “Sorry, I don’t know. Not my problem,” and then I shut the door. They probably thought I was crazy, but seriously, what was I supposed to do? 


I laughed because that’s how I get through most of these uncomfortable situations. There are even times where I go into a store or restaurant and forget what to say, so I just laugh. Again, they probably think I am crazy! I hope you can laugh with me too.

One thing is sure, we will never give up trying to become fluent French speakers! We are at the point where we know all the basics and then some. It’s time to put all of our knowledge together and to stop talking like French cavemen. 

The first thing we need to do is get rid of our crutches. After spending three months on crutches last year, I know what a tremendous help they can be. But at some point, I need to let the crutches go and trust myself, just like I did after my knee had healed.

So, where does that leave us? Here we are today, 60 hours of classes completed, and daily in-person interactions in French. French is still difficult. We can speak French reasonably well, but we are far from fluent. We’ve always been able to get what we need. Even when we revert to speaking caveman French style! But, neither of us are feel great at having casual conversations with others in French.

I’ve made some goals for us for the next few months to help become more fluent in French. The COVID restrictions are increasing in Lyon again this weekend, and our opportunities outside the walls of our apartment may become even more limited.

new goals to become fluent in french

  1. Get rid of the cheat-sheet we reference in every class. 
  2. Turn off the subtitles in French shows. They don’t even match what the person is saying anyways!
  3. Actively listen to someone when they are speaking.
  4. Find friends who will speak French with us at a normal speed.

We have come a long way in our first 60 hours of lessons, and I can’t wait to see where we will be after our last 60 hours.

P.S. I now have a new hiking section on the blog that you can find on the top menu bar. I’ve added photos for Col du Morgonnet and Saut du Laire that we hiked two weekends ago. Please enjoy the photos!

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2 thoughts on “Our Journey to Become Fluent in French

  1. Learning a new language is harder and harder the older you get, so I am told. I doubt if I could learn even caveman French! I hope you aren’t confined to the house again, just as the heat dissipates and it is a good time to be out.
    At least you have your balcony and own things!

    1. Nancy, we hope we won’t be confined either. But you are right, having a balcony and our own things will make a world of difference if it happens!

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