Monday, March 5, 2012

Parlez-vous français?

In keeping with my pseudo new year's resolution, I recently enrolled in an intensive French class at the Institut National des Langues (INL) near the Glacis in Limpertsberg. There are quite a few class options for folks wanting to learn a new language - classes at the American Women's Club, Berlitz, Rosetta Stone, etc.  But, in reality, unless you use it, you really don't learn it. In my case, I have the desire, but unless I am continuously prodded to speak in French and to do my homework, I can go several days without making much of an attempt beyond my current vocabulary and stand-by phrases or questions. Therefore, when I heard about the immersion classes offered at the INL, I knew that I needed to give this option a shot.

When we were first considering our move to Luxembourg, there were a lot of folks who told us that you really don't need to know French (or German, or Luxembourgish) in order to get by. Though that may be true on one level (yes, a few short phrases and a talent in pantomime can get you through the day), it really does begin to wear on you. I do believe that an expat who is only expecting to be in the country for a short period of time (say, a year or two) could easily manage without learning French. However, I frequently hear stories about those short time commitments being extended several times. I am a firm believer that if you wish to live in a different country, you should take the time and make the effort to learn the language and the customs. Honestly, we expect the same as Americans when immigrants move to the U.S., so why should we be offended when others appreciate the same effort? So, knowing that our family is here for an indefinite period of time, I made it a priority to get a move on this goal.

Back in December I began checking out the INL website ( Well, this alone proved to be a teeny bit of a challenge since (at least at that time) once you got past the home page, the Google Translate application would not work. Therefore, I had to decipher what I could, and cut and paste the rest (page by page) into the Google translator. Needless to say, this did take a bit of effort, but I was finally able to understand the process.

First, I had to enroll as a student. This involved filling out the online application and waiting for the responding email that would request a 10 euro registration payment. Once the fee was received, I was informed that all current French classes (the language I choose on my application) were currently full. However, I was told that once the Spring classes came available, I would receive another email or SMS notifying me of when I could register for my interview. Unlike some classes, the INL requires you to take a placement exam that tests you on your listening, reading, writing and speaking skills in the language of your choice prior to registering for the class. This is to insure that you are placed according to your level. The INL does provide classes and tests that are recognized by the various countries that are used to determine your fluency in the language. These tests are often used by students and employees who wish to obtain employment that requires a definitive level of language competency.  Of course, not all students at the INL are looking for a scholarly level of fluency in any given language, but it is nice to know that they really are proficient in evaluating a student's level of fluency.

Early in January I did receive the anticipated email and registered for an interview time in mid-February. The day of the interview I arrived at the INL building with my required ID and registration letter. I was directed to a classroom down the hall where about 30 of us were ushered in and asked to take a seat. Again, all verbal communication from beginning to end was done in French. We were given a short written exam, followed by a listening test where we would listen to a short dialogue and were asked to mark the answer that pertained to the conversation. I quickly learned that this, indeed, was my weakness. I never did learn my scores on those two exams, but I am quite sure I clearly blew that listening one. French is one of those languages that is often spoken quickly and words are linked together when spoken. So, though I can read French pretty well, I really struggle to distinguish words when it is spoken any faster than how most folks would speak to a very young child... VERY sloooooowly.

However, if I thought the listening test was intimidating, that was nothing compared to what came next. After completing the two written exams, we were led to a series of classrooms where 3-5 students were escorted in to sit with an instructor for a short conversation. I was ushered into the second classroom where I was asked to sit next to an instructor who was already interviewing another student. I could tell that the instructor had asked her to describe herself - her name, where she was from, did she work, why she wanted to learn French, etc. I was all prepared with what I was going to say when I was asked by another instructor to move to her station. As luck would have it, her questions were different and her French was much faster. In any case, she determined my level as being the next level up from a true beginner (a pretty accurate assessment, I would have to admit), and showed me my choice of classes. After that humbling experience, I signed up for the class with the most weekly meetings - 4 days a week, 100 minutes per class. I swear, I can't remember the last time when I was that stressed out! I walked out feeling like I had just experienced the SATs all over again. I know - a bit dramatic. But, I hate feeling like I am being put on the spot and finding myself at a complete loss for words. Needless to say, that is not something that happens to me very often - being at a loss for words, that is.

Classes began the week after Carnival break, so I am now one week into the class. I have to say, it has already been quite the experience. We have a lovely French teacher who is very dynamic and eager to teach. She spent the first few classes trying to get an idea of what folks really wanted to get out of the class. It didn't take long to figure out that everyone wanted the exact same thing I was looking for - the ability to communicate more effectively with others. Although all classes require you to parrot what is written in the text book and may solicit an impromptu conversation on a given topic, this class focuses almost entirely on developing listening and speaking skills. All books (except for your handy dictionary) are used only for homework. Class time focuses on Q&A time with your classroom neighbor, talking to your neighbor (en français, bien sur) about a given topic, listening to recorded conversations and then working with your neighbor to see what the two of you managed to understand, and, finally, reading dialogue with your neighbor to work on the definitions and pronunciation of the words. I will be honest - I often feel like I am in grade school again and have woken up several mornings with butterflies in my stomach, totally freaked out at having to engage in what I know must be a rather butchered form of French. To add to this uneasiness, I have quickly determined that I am the only American in the classroom and only one of maybe 3 or 4 students that speak English. (I am 98% sure that I am the only person whose native language is English.) The students are from every country imaginable - India, Spain, Vietnam, the Netherlands, Iran, Iraq, etc. It really is an amazingly diverse classroom, both in nationalities and age.

I have no idea how long it will be before I am truly comfortable conversing in a new language. I do really hope to get a handle on French sometime in the next couple of years so that perhaps I can start tackling either German or Luxembourgish. Though I hope I am not THIS bad, I just thought I would share this video with you. I have to admit - I have "faked it" on occasions. As much I would like to believe it, I am quite sure I have yet to fool anyone :)

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