It all starts with a trip to the bakery. Or rather, the boulangerie, because I’m in Paris, sweating profusely in the early morning sunshine as I try to order breakfast.
‘Umm…une croissant, s’il vous plaît,’ I whisper, accidentally misgendering a pastry as I jab awkwardly at the glass counter. I try to ignore the lady’s tiny eye roll as she bundles up my croissant, instead scanning behind her for what I really desire: a coffee.
But how to ask for one? I should probably know, given that for the past ten years, I have had ‘Proficient in French’ listed under the skills section of my CV, and even got an A-grade in the language at A-level.
But right now, the French words for ‘Do you have?’ are as mysterious to my brain as they’d be in Swahili, so instead I play charades with an imaginary cup, hopefully asking, ‘Le café?’
‘Yes, we do have coffee,’ answers the lady in English, now clearly finding this pantomime intolerable. I leave the boulangerie with a crispy, golden pastry and my coffee, but feeling dejected.
‘Umm…une croissant, s’il vous plaît,’ I whisper, accidentally misgendering a pastry as I jab awkwardly at the glass counter
This incident has confirmed one of my biggest fears: that I am in fact one of those useless British people who can’t speak any language other than English, and arrogantly stomps around the world assuming everyone will understand me.
As a nation we are notoriously bad at foreign languages. A study carried out by the European Commission found that almost two thirds of EU citizens could speak at least one foreign language, but only 34 per cent of Brits can claim the same.
Rates are highest in Sweden, Latvia, Denmark and Lithuania, while in Luxembourg more than half of working-age adults can speak at least three languages. Three! In the UK, even one additional language is a stretch.
As a nine-year-old, I spent a few days in school in Munich – part of my parents’ attempt to expand my horizons by packing me off to stay with German family friends.
I remember being shocked by the intense focus placed on learning English and learned more about English grammar in those lessons than I did in my own school.
I doubt any of those nine-year-olds has gone on to find themselves in a UK branch of Greggs, murdering the name of a local pastry.
My first port of call is the Institut Français in Kensington, the hub of all things French in London. Feeling gung-ho, I sign up for a three-week intensive course – two hours of French taught via video call every morning.
Before starting, I must undergo a telephone test to see just how good (or bad) my French is. I’m out for dinner when the assessment takes place, so nip out to the restaurant terrace and spend a few excruciating moments stuttering down the phone as a lovely French lady asks me extremely basic questions about my life and hobbies.
A study carried out by the European Commission found that almost two thirds of EU citizens could speak at least one foreign language, but only 34 per cent of Brits can claim the same
It takes all of five minutes for her to place me on the A1 beginner course, which is both a relief and a damning indictment of my current skill level.
I’m jittery with nerves as my first class begins; it’s not often you put yourself out there to try something completely new as an adult.
However, meeting the four pupils in my class puts me at ease, as it becomes obvious that we are all in the same bateau, proficiency-wise.
Our teacher Patricia is supportive and encouraging but unwilling to give us an easy ride.
I had worried that learning over video call would feel second rate, but in fact there is no opportunity for my attention to wander, plus it’s much more convenient than travelling to South Kensington every day.
Learn to Parle like a Parisian
With bitesized daily lessons and motivational challenges, Duolingo is the best language app I’ve tried – and you can download it from your app store for free.Try reading kids’ books in your chosen language before progressing to adult fiction. I found The Little Prince in French was a good level to start.If you can’t find a language school in your local area, consider an online course. While Institut Français is excellent for French, many other languages can be accessed through Cactus (languagecoursesuk.co.uk).Seek out podcasts in the language you’re learning. I found Little Talk in Slow French just right.
Having overcome my nerves, I’m keen to embrace this adult learning thing and decide telly is a great way to support my classes.
Cue a passionate affair with Netflix’s Emily in Paris, where the characters often speak in French (albeit with subtitles). Next I try the original French-language version of cult hit series Call My Agent!, also on Netflix.
I discover apprendre.tv5monde.com, where you can watch endless videos to fine-tune your French ear, and re-download Duolingo for the fifth time (it’s good but requires a level of self-discipline I often lack).
Through my French teacher, I find Paul Taylor, an English-born, Paris-dwelling comedian whose bilingual What The F*** France TV series has made him extremely popular in the country, which is surprising given that it makes fun of the cultural and linguistic eccentricities of the French.
One thing he often points out is how ridiculously complex the French language is, and I certainly agree, although I am making good progress in lessons, quickly picking up new grammar and long-forgotten vocabulary.
What surprises me the most is how much I enjoy the process of learning French. No,
I am not a secret linguistic genius; it’s bloody hard and I frequently make mistakes. But it feels like unused parts of my brain are starting to switch on, long dormant synapses suddenly refiring.
Researchers have found that bilingual people have denser grey matter than their monolingual peers – in other words, it boosts your brain’s reserves.
And as a busy working mother who feels constantly divided between the demands of office and home life, it feels glorious to take up a hobby that is just for me, an affirmation that I’m still my own person with interests and ambitions.
Months after that embarrassing trip to the boulangerie, and after progressing to a new A2 course at the Institut, I’m back in Paris, this time for the YOU magazine team’s rendezvous in the city.
Before catching the Eurostar home, I challenge myself to visit a bakery and place an order, the ultimate test of how far I’ve come. After all my efforts, it’s a relief when I enter and the words start to flow.
I Ieave with six different pastries, a quiche and an iced coffee I requested just to see if I could.
The best bit? As I pay at the end, the lady behind the till smiles warmly at me and declares in her mother tongue, ‘Your French is very good.’