(This was first published in Le News 9 October 2014)
When they heard that I was moving to Switzerland, many of my South African friends assured me that I would be speaking French fluently ‘in no time’.
Most of them do not speak French themselves, and were most likely confusing French the actual language with French the menu language. The latter usually has helpful English translations underneath and so can easily be learned between the apéritifs and the digestifs. But the former … well, I don’t know. It’s taken three years and three rounds of lessons, and I still don’t speak it fluently. Maybe what my friends meant by ‘in no time’ was actually ‘never’ but they were too kind to come out and say it.
Those same friends were also warmly reassuring about how much better it would be to learn French in situ, rather than taking classes while still in South Africa.
‘Oh, the immersion method is best,’ they said. ‘It’s the way children learn!’
(Hah! Show me the child who’s had to explain the contents of their suitcase to a Swiss border guard on first entering the country and I’ll show you … I don’t know. One of the Von Trapps, maybe. But no ordinary child.)
In my view, the immersion method may be effective but it’s also extremely damaging to the psyche.
For example: in a class, language students move along with a structured programme, laying a good foundation and methodically building on that.
But for us immersion-learners, the pathway into French is crazy-paved and looping. It’s all needs-based, so you might still be learning the basics – (Hello. Please. Thank you. No, I don’t have a store loyalty card) – at the same time that you are plunged into actually living in this language, going to the shops and asking for things you need. If you’re unlucky, your child will come down with something horrible and you’ll find yourself in the pharmacy, whipping out your spotty new vocabulary for the amusement of everyone in the queue behind you: (Hello. I am looking for a shampoo for head lice. And I need a medicine for warts. And pills for intestinal worms. Also, I’d like a Cloak of Invisibility, please. No, don’t bother packing it. I’ll just put it on right here.)
Further, learners in a language class get a sense of achievement from moving through the syllabus. They might … I don’t know … pass tests, participate in dialogues, complete worksheets. They’ll get approval from their teachers and go home feeling all glowy, and one step closer to Paris.
Not so for us deep-enders. We never get the chance to feel good about ourselves. Instead, every day we’re brought face-to-face with what we don’t know. Yes, you may have just spent the previous week twisting your brain into a pretzel to memorise the gender of two hundred nouns. Excellent. Now try to tell that to the supermarket checkout lady, who’s (inexplicably) waving a flower at you and getting increasingly irritated with your inability to understand what’s going on. She’s strangely unimpressed when you tell her that ‘flower’ is a feminine noun.
Anyway, hope springs eternal, so I’m about to start my fourth round of French lessons. And this one surely will clinch it. I’ll be fluent after this. No more weird pantomiming in the bakery; no more making up strange hybrid words when I can’t remember the right ones. And then I’ll be ready to plunge right in and immerse myself again: from the top of my head right down to my foot-fingers.