Friday, October 24, 2014

The Truth About Learning French in Belgium

By Caleigh Bourgeois
I was very confident about my French speaking abilities before moving to Belgium. I could clumsily muster a, “Je voudrais un café.” I could even ask for directions! I understood French films! Upon boarding my plane ride to Belgium I was convinced I would be fluent within a few months.
I quickly learned that taking classes in a second language in your home country does not make you immediately proficient in the real world.
"Grande-Place," en Francais, "Grand Place," in English
Surprise, surprise, the locals don’t speak as slowly as my French professors did. While everyone tends to speak quickly in native tongue, the French language in particular lacks staccato. While beautiful, French words flow together with few pauses, which makes distinguishing them more difficult.
My pronunciation needed some work right away. While a Midwest accent may do just fine in a classroom, native French speakers often have a hard time understanding my speech, even when I "technically" pronounce words correctly. Learning not to pronounce an “r” is almost as difficult as learning to roll it.
It isn’t always difficult. For me, the easiest aspect of studying French has always been reading it. I can recognize street signs and decipher food labels quite well. Although in Brussels, they are also in Dutch.
This brings me to an entirely new dynamic I face. There are two official languages in Belgium, Dutch and French. In fact, the country is split up into three regions, Vlaanders, the Dutch region and Wallonia, the French region, and a third extremely small German-speaking region gained after the Treaty of Versailles.
Photo Credit: SicMagazine.Org
Brussels falls in the Flemish (Dutch-speaking) region, but because of its one-of-a-kind status as home to the EU, both Dutch and French are spoken. Every sign, label and metro stop is in both languages.
While I work for a Flemish/American newspaper, my knowledge of Dutch consists of, “allo,” “dank u,” and any Germanic words that cross over with English. This wasn't an issue until I traveled out into Vlaanders for work. I went to a gorgeous city called Antwerp, a major diamond retail hub and former port for emigration. Everyone there spoke Dutch and everything was in Dutch. Even my French knowledge couldn’t save me.
Dutch-speaking city of Antwerp
The opposite happened when I traveled to Wallonia . There, everyone spoke French, no Dutch, but more importantly for me, no English. While most people speak English in Brussels, and insist on doing so after hearing my accent, no one I met in Wallonia could.
After getting off at the wrong train stop in Verviers, Belgium, I had no other choice but to speak French with an attendant at the train station. I was lost and alone and it was the best possible practice I could have received. It was exhilarating and prosperous.
Although I’ve had moments of extreme embarrassment, goofy mix ups and sheer panic, it is so much fun practicing my French with the locals. I certainly am not at the level of proficiency I wanted to be after two months, but my adventures in learning are more memorable than I ever could have imagined.
Every successful interaction in French feels is a victory, whether it’s speaking with a cashier or asking for directions. It’s incredible how some words come back to me seemingly out of nowhere, words I haven’t used since high school French six years ago.
 Speaking in French the only fun part. I love eavesdropping on conversations in the Metro to find context. I buy French magazines and spend up to 30 minutes on a two-page story, finding new words and trying to grasp the article’s purpose. It feels like I’m cracking a secret code.

Last night, I dreamt entirely in French. I’ve heard it said that dreaming in a second language is a sign that you’re well on your way in learning it. Although I’m not going to come home singing Edith Piaf with perfect pronunciation, I am satisfied with the progress I am making, and look forward to working toward true fluency.

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