TBT – A week in Paris

Planning my first trip to Iceland and trying to get conversational with the language has reminded me of when we went to Paris last year. We had decided this time to try the Eurostar rather than flying as we could visit my family in London for a few days and then get the tube in to St Pancras rather than spending hours sitting in an airport. This proved to be a very good decision in the end. Rather than the usual full scale riot when boarding is announced, it was a much more casual affair. There were still people charging up the stairs as if their life depending on reaching the train first but most people, us included, took a much more leisurely approach; especially considering that the seats were all reserved so you weren’t fighting for space.

We also had another new experience while we were there which was an AirBnB apartment. For this trip it was great because we could fill the fridge with snacks and drinks for the day which was a very good idea considering the extraordinary heat in August. I think we worked out that we had spent around a third of our money on bottles of drink while exploring the city because it was so hot. We also deduced that walking 12-15 miles in a day in 35 degree heat wearing skinny jeans was not the brightest idea; who knew?!

As usual, as soon as I had booked the tickets and apartment I started to brush up on my french ready for our departure. At school I dropped french as soon as I had the chance and was basically starting from scratch.

This time I only had 2 months, 8 whole weeks, to try and get to a level where I could ask for directions, order food and generally not be the stereotypical Englishman that shouts progressly louder and louder in a french accent and hopes to be universally understood.

Due to the target being travel conversation I focused my efforts on listening to the Coffee Break French series. My advice for anyone starting out in language learning, or even trying to improve listening and speaking skills, I would highly recommend any of the Coffee Break series. They are short (to fit in a coffee break as the name suggests) and focused on giving you the tools to communicate in travel situations and also understand what you are saying. The understanding part is what sets this apart. It is great to be able to rattle off phrases and hope you know what the answer means but true understanding means you can use the phrases as building blocks and adapt to the situation at hand; which is vital in a real life situation.

I think I managed to get through the first 2 series of the podcast, supplemented by some Duolingo to increase my vocabulary, which left me more than prepared for ordering my girlfriend a coffee in a parisian cafe which I was satisfied with. As I don’t drink tea or coffee it isn’t so difficult for me to order a diet coke which as far as I know is the same in every language.

The main point I took away from this trip, that I will use in the future, is that to have someone respond in the language you need to be confident with it. I sometimes find the speaking to a native speaker is like going to stroke a dog; they can sense weakness and will pounce on it. You may not get your hand bitten off by a native speaker, or I should hope not, but they will usually revert to English if they know it as they can tell that you aren’t as comfortable with theirs. As the trip went on I forgot about the fear and started using what I knew and nearly all the responses came back in French, even if they knew from my accent that i definitely was not from Paris.

Since the trip I haven’t practiced my French at all but I am not too concerned by this. I am sure that if another opportunity arises to use it I will be able to quickly brush up on it to get to get back to my travel conversation level.

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