8 years of French classes and I still didn’t speak the language.

eng frenchIn Canada we all have to learn French in school because of Quebec. That’s how I’ve always put it. We don’t want to learn French but we have to. Canada is a bilingual country. French and English “have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and Government of Canada,” according to Canada’s constitution.(1)

When I was a kid we started learning French in grade three and it was obligatory up to grade nine. I took an extra year after the mandatory grade nine and in fact, I got the best mark in my highschool. My teachers would tell me that my pronunciation was really good, I think that was due to the fact that I spoke Arabic as well. I only stopped studying French because I was going to be a doctor and didn’t think I’d need it. About seven years after I’d dropped French, I moved to France. It was going to be an adventure, I was expecting culture shock and I had no disillusion about my poor French level. But upon arriving in France I was in for quite the shock. I realised pretty quickly that I understood NOTHING! WHAT THE HECK DID WE DO FOR EIGHT YEARS!!

How was it possible that nothing sounded familiar? How was it possible that I couldn’t even ask for directions or buy bread at the bakery? I was so frustrated and on a few occasions, went home and cried. The worst was when I went to MacDonald’s and tried to order a meal. At that point I knew how to say “je voudrais…” (I would like…). So I thought it would be easy. I said to the nice lady behind the counter “Je voudrais un happy meal, milk shake, filet-o-fish, coke et potatoes”. All of those words were on the big menu on the wall behind her but she looked very confused by what I’d said. She replied with something which I understood to mean that she didn’t understand. But those words are all on the menu how can she not know them? I then figured it out. She didn’t understand my accent. I mean, I was pronouncing correctly and that threw her off. She’d probably never heard those words pronounced correctly in her life. So I had to try again. “Je voudrais un appi meele, meelk shayke, feelay-oo-feeshe, coca cola et pottatooz”. She then understood and started putting my order through! I couldn’t believe it!

Eight years of French classes and I still didn’t speak the language. Wow! But no worries, I picked it up quickly by living the language. I didn’t really take any courses, just listening to people around me, watching television and reading. I had my pocket French/English dictionary on me at all times. It wasn’t so hard to learn it once I was surrounded by the language.

Then I had my first child and it made better sense to me. We have to be surrounded by a language, experience the language and live the language to learn it. No one ever translates to a baby. No one conjugates verbs to a baby. You point at a table call it a table and that’s that. Two years of hearing the language and living it is what’s required on average before a baby starts speaking.

The French have the same problem as the Canadians. Here in France kids start learning English at the very latest eleven years old. A lot of them begin way before that. But the average French person thinks they aren’t any good at English. The lady at MacDonald’s didn’t even recognise words that were English until I repeated them with a French accent.

This is why our concept at Speak English Center and at Speak English Kids is better than any traditional language class. We use the idea of living the language in order to help our clients learn English. From day 1 we speak to you in English and help you progress by speaking.

1.“Subsection 16(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982



  1. Katrina Reply

    I am not surprised by the fact that even after 8 or even 15 years someone can’t speak a language that they have lived by. It’s not all about the writing or speaking the language. First of all having that interest to learn the language of your choice, sparing time and being in the right environment is always very important. After all learning another language isn’t just about writing or speaking but being associated with another culture.

    Even after many years of speaking English and helping others learn it, I can’t claim to be perfect in it (and I guess nobody can say that they know everything concerning the language). There is always something new to learn

    And in my opinion and from what I have seen with time, you also have to accept the fact that there’s no ‘quick fix’ when it comes to learning a new language.

    Thanks for the awesome read.

    Katrina @ http://www.truelanguage.com

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