When I was picking classes in August for my first semester at Universitet i Oslo, I had the idea that I would like to pick my French up again.
I’d been learning French ever since I was four and my mum sent me to a French club every week to sing “Frère Jacques” and declare that “J’ai faim, je voudrais un paquet de bonbons“. I continued with it right up to A-Level, though most of my memories are of sitting in the class trying to control my rising panic at the thought of the subjunctive.
(Note: My French classes apparently must have had some impact on me though as for my second tattoo I chose to immortalise a quote I’d been drawing on my wrist in biro ever since we watched La Haine;
I know it looks all red there but it was freshly done!)
But then I moved to China for a year and Chinese infected my brain and then I began to study Norwegian and gradually French became like a grumpy old man in the back of my brain; mostly rocking silently in a chair, but occasionally bursting out with random input that no one can really explain.
Take my Norwegian oral exam, for example! At the time I felt so confident that I had done well and was more than a little disappointed when our grades were released. Then while I was waiting for my written Norwegian exam to start, my teacher came up to me and told me that when I thought I’d been gabbling away in Norwegian, I’d actually been casually slipping in some French and could I make sure to leave any liberté, egalité or fraternité out of this test?
I was so annoyed.
I decided on French grammar because I remembered really struggling with it in school and felt that that had been the biggest obstacle in my language development. But through rigorous Norwegian grammar classes (thank you Elettra), I now understand what terms like “the subjunctive” actually mean and thus, felt cautiously optimistic about tackling French grammar again. What I hadn’t remembered however, was that French grammar is the literal equivalent of a balloon woman being tried by water as a witch in the 1600s…. a good outcome is unlikely.
Take articles, for example. In French if a noun is a well-respected divorcee in his mid-forties, then the article is “de”. However, if the noun only appears to be a well-respected divorcee in his mid-forties, yet subsequent credit card bills suggest that he is actually a time-travelling Bolshevik with a love child in Switzerland and the Tsar’s tooth in a locket, then the article is “du”.
(Note: the above is obviously an analogy to demonstrate the complexities of French grammar and clearly exaggerated…. but at the same time, not).
However, minor complications aside – I’m really glad I took the French class. Firstly because it did coax the old French gentleman in my brain out of his chair and into a walking frame. Enough so that when I had a haircut at Christmas, the Swiss hairdresser and I had enough broken English and French between us to ensure that I walked out looking pretty fine, if I do say so myself (A small victory, you may say! A big risk, I reply!).
Secondly, it improved my Norwegian. Operating in a class with Norwegian as my main language was excellent for vocabulary and comprehension. Plus the feeling of relief which flooded over me when we could switch back to Norwegian was amazing, especially if I’d spent the past hour and forty-five minutes being continuously slugged by Les Compléments d’Objet Direct (COD).
Finally, studying abroad has only made me painfully aware of how far behind the UK is in terms of language learning. I am one of two native English speakers (the other is from the US) in my Norwegian class and, despite everyone in class being of a similar level of Norwegian, most other people can speak English already in addition to their native tongue and possibly more. Passing an exam for a foreign language in another foreign language (and I DID pass my French grammar – take that Subjonctif!) meant that I now felt that I was on the same level as the other foreign students (#streetlanguagecred).
So if you’re studying on Erasmus, think about taking another language… and know that moments of being so muddled that you don’t know what your name is, let alone which language you’re speaking, are completely normal.
I recently had two of my best friends visit me from England for a week and Sian has written a blog post about it (which is awesome – both in its own right and because I don’t have to do one! 😉 ) Check it out here; https://siandrewblog.wordpress.com/2016/02/