How did I learn to speak awesome French ? (part 2)

by | Jul 19, 2017 | blog

I have a weakness for big ideas. Unfortunately, life is short, so I cannot realize every big idea I that comes into my head. This means I can choose only the best ones. In September 2002, around the time I began actively learning French, I got the big idea to walk across France. Yes, walk, on foot. I still consider this to be one of the better big ideas I have ever had. I believed that walking across France would help me get to know the country better, and also give me numerous chances to talk to local people, thus improving my language abilities. The walk idea grew over time and would not leave me in peace. When I learned in November of 2002 that I had received a scholarship to study history in Germany beginning in August 2003, my crazy idea turned into a plan: I would leave the US for Europe early, go to France, walk across the country, and then after successful completion of my trip, go to Germany and begin studying.

In May 2003, I graduated from the University of Florida, traveled back to my hometown (thanks for the ride, Mom and Dad!), and spent some weeks working in bicycle shop saving money for my upcoming travel. I also reviewed a lot of vocabulary, mainly using lists of words I had written down.

When I had enough money, plus a bit more, I flew to Paris and then went to Toulouse in the west of France, where I began to walk east towards Germany. Quite quickly, I learned that my idea was very poorly thought out. I knew very little about nutrition, and in addition was not aware of the effect caffeine had on my body. It was actually a recipe for disaster- I didn’t have a clear idea of how much I needed to eat, got tired quickly, and began drinking Coca-Cola. I had struggled with sleep problems for many years, and always drank Coke, tea or coffee to wake myself up after a night of bad sleep. What I didn’t realize was that caffeine was actually causing 90% of the bad sleep! It also caused wild swings in energy levels and in my mood, especially in larger doses. So, as was my habit, I drank Coke during my walk to increase my energy level, but as always the result unpredictably high and low levels of energy. In addition to this not trivial problem, 2003 was also an exceptionally hot summer, with temperatures on the road of around 40 degrees Celsius. It made me thirsty, so I drank more Coke or fruit juice, which killed my appetite. I also realized that my previous understanding of what a kilometer was had come mainly from riding a bicycle. I knew of course that walking was slower than riding a bike, but I could not have even told you how long it took to walk a single kilometer. Much to my shame, I quickly gave up on walking and began instead to ask for rides, which rather defeated the purpose of the trip. One also meets quite a few strange people when asking for rides, and France is certainly no exception in this regard.

As for language development, I got quite good at having the same conversation with people I met along the way. I also realized the same thing I had while traveling in Germany some years before after having studied German for just one year: learning words from cards or lists with translations is not the most effective technique for learning (at least not when it is the main technique you use). I learned a few new words here and there, and got somewhat better at understanding what people said to me, but overall there was little progress in the six or so weeks of my trip, and I often encountered words I had memorized from my cards but didn’t understand them because I had only ever seen them on cards and never seen them, much less heard them, in a meaningful context. I considered the trip overall to be a pretty awful time, and in addition an expensive failure. Shit happens, as they say.
After the trip ended, I went to Germany and, in addition to enrolling in history classes at Humboldt University and at the Free University, I also signed up for a French class at Humboldt, made friends with a few French people, and also signed up for a language exchange with a student from France. History and German though were my main objects of focus, with French taking merely third place. The French classes were geared mainly towards Germans. German and French don’t share nearly the same amount of vocabulary that English and French do, so classes moved a bit slowly for me. The main focus was conversation and there was little homework, and certainly no ambitious goals, like reading whole books or acquiring large amounts of vocabulary. Overall, when speaking in French mainly with Germans, we all recycled the same somewhat limited pool of words we already knew rather than building our stock of new vocabulary. This was of course beneficial because it helped us to strengthen what we already knew, but it would have been nice to systematically learn large amounts of new vocabulary and grammar, as well. In any case, the classes were almost free, allowed me to make a bit of progress, and helped me to socialize with others. At the end of the second semester, a Finnish friend told me that it was possible to take a German language test Humboldt University, one which, if you could pass it, would allow you access to German universities without further language testing. I took and passed the German test, and supposed there might be a similar test for French.

Indeed there was such a test offered for French- UNICERT, which was offered in four levels, from beginner (UNICERT-I) to advanced (UNICERT-IV). I decided on the upper-intermediate test, UNICERT-III, took it, and passed. To be quite honest, the test was far less challenging than the German test had been, and I was criticized a bit for making a presentation that was a bit too short. (Well- I had hardly been offered crystal clear instructions on the required length of my talk.) Also, the relative ease of the test also was surely connected with the fact that French shares so much vocabulary with English- French is simply an easier language for English speakers than German is.

After the end of that second semester in Germany, I decided I needed to go home for a year, work and save money. I liked France and wanted to go back there, but was unsure how to do it. I also wanted to in fact successfully walk across France rather than hitchhike- I don’t accept failure so easily. I wasn’t so happy about returning home, but I also didn’t see many other choices. At the end of the summer in Germany, I also got certified to teach English to adults. I hoped that having such a certificate would make it easier to return to France as an English teacher the following year.

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