Coping with the French language

When I left Berne last September to study in Montpellier it was five years since I had finished high school, and therefore five years in which I didn’t practice any French. Actually, I never really spoke in my French class, because I was very bad and anxious that I would make mistakes. Bottom line I had no idea if my French would be good enough to study in France. When I applied for an Erasmus semester in France, I told myself that I will do a language course at the Uni Bern to prepare myself and improve my French. Then, life came along…

So, the only preparation I had was watching the news on RTS (public swiss-French radio and TV station).

When I arrived in Montpellier and checked in at my student housing, I did not understand much of what the woman at the counter was saying but after some minutes I started to adapt to her accent and from there on I could communicate with her. So, at first, I struggled a bit, but fortunately I was forced to speak French, because most people don’t speak English and if they do, their accent is usually so strong that I understand them better when they speak French. In my first week I met a lot of Italian and Spanish people, and therefore we spoke mostly in French, so we could all practice the language. And even with some of my German friends I spoke mostly in French. So, when university started, I already felt quite comfortable speaking French.

Another huge plus was that I was the only Erasmus student in my university class. That forced me to speak French all the time at uni and also helped me to get integrated in my class. My class really made an effort and invited me to every social event they had planned. At these social events, it sometimes got a little bit tricky. When my friends were talking and there were several people speaking at the same time, I immediately lost track of the discussion, due to the speed and sometimes the slang words they used. So, I had to ask someone to give me a summary.

Also, I learned that Swiss French-speakers have an accent. I always thought that the Swiss French speakers speak more or less without an accent. Then, once I had dinner with a German friend at her place and her roommate, who’s French, joined us. He taught us some French slang words and talked about French accents. Then I asked how strong our accents were. He told me that I have a very strong accent and that I sound a lot like the Swiss French speakers. I was stunned, because I never noticed that they would speak differently. I started to pay attention to the different Swiss French accents when I watched the Swiss French news, and I started noticing that there are quite some differences.

All in all, I think I got along quite well with my French and I noticed that some of my German and Spanish friends had a harder time speaking French, so I guess my French classes in high school weren’t that bad after all. But there were still some situations in which I realized that French is still far away from being a native language to me. For example, when there was a misunderstanding in one of my sports courses or when I did not agree with a referees decision. I always tried to explain myself but realized that it’s very hard to argue with someone in French. Sometimes I got a bit angry, partly because I felt misunderstood and partly, I was angry at myself because I couldn’t explain what I wanted. But in the end, I guess that’s normal and I was happy that I apparently felt comfortable enough speaking French to start an argument.


Samuel Weidtmann

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