How to Fake Speaking French… Pathetic!


Je ne parle pas françaisAfter almost 18 years in Paris, the conclusion is that my level of French ‘sucks.’ Last night at the Parler Parlor French-English Conversation Group  that I co-founded more than 14 years ago with Marie-Elisabeth Crochard Fasanella Fitère (yep, married a few times), it was clear that of all the people in the group, my level of effort these past years was the lowest of all.

It’s pathetic.

I admit to avoiding doing much of anything in French…particularly reading or writing, of which I have never learned to do well, much less do at all. When the French TV programs come on, I surf till there is something in English. If the Web site is in French, Google translates it to English. If I hear a French person speaking English, the conversation immediately moves from French to English.

Yep, it’s pathetic.

As an “autodidact,” when it came time to enroll in French classes, I headed for the hills (of Montmartre). The excuse? Why sit in a classroom when there is a big beautiful city out there to explore and lots of real French people on the street with which to practice speaking? Right?

For a short time I tried a private teacher but drove her nuts with bad attitude, and we parted ways not long after. That’s when the conversation group became a perfect alternative — as a way of ‘forcing’ myself to learn this very difficult language in a non-threatening environment.

Actually, it worked. It took a long time, but it worked…at least to speak and then years later, actually comprehend. There is simply nothing more valuable than practice.

In the meantime, I learned how to ‘fake’ the French so no one would know I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying.

One way is to respond to whatever someone says with “Ah, bon?” And then, they just continue on saying whatever they were saying and you continue saying “Ah, bon?” until you both say “Au revoir.” It works…for a while, too.

There’s a video on that offers several alternatives to that. These are valuable lessons for someone as pathetic as me.

For all these years, I’ve found a way around certain bits of French that are tough to maneuver…like the “subjonctif.”

“Il faut que…” never leaves the lips. There are lots of ways round this. For example, you can say, “Il est important que tu boives du vin.” (It is important that you drink wine.) Or you can say “Il est important de boire du vin.” (It is important to drink wine.) Who will know the difference?

Another one I’ve never gotten is the verb “asseoir” (to sit). Asseoir has two complete sets of conjugations. Plus, it can be reflexive. Help! There is no way I’m ever going to get this one, so I am never ‘sitting’ nor is anyone around me! However, they do “prendre la chaise” (to take the chair), or “vouloir changer sa place” (to want to change his/her place). No one seems to notice that ‘sitting’ is just not happening.

When in conversation, if the vocabulary in French is missing, then it’s easy to simply ask, “comment dire…blah, blah, blah?” And then someone offers it up and no one is the wiser that my level of French sucks.

See? Faking French is easy…but perhaps, pathetic.

The truth is I can manage to hold a conversation in French with anyone on just about anything, but particularly anything related to construction. The contractors, electricians, plumbers and the like are mostly immigrants with accents worse than mine, but who speak better and faster. With them there is no problem. They might not even notice the mistakes.

Marie-Elisabeth told me over dinner last night that my 18 years of bad habits are going to be tough to break and what I need is a private teacher.

Ha! No doubt, as a 27-year veteran Berlitz director, she is right. And then she laughed and said, “But you’re never going to do it, right?”

That’s when I realize how pathetic it is that after all these years, my level of French sucks.

Any suggestions?

A la prochaine…


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    My suggestion is that you change your habits. But you already know this. Exert the necessary act of will; keep repeating that exertion; and quand vous lapse, get back on track. Don’t try to reform instantaneously. But if you don’t spend even half an hour a day learning French, spend a half hour a day incrementally and thoroughly improving your understanding. People recommend different aids. Here are trois choses I’ve found helpful: 1) News in slow French podcasts with the transcripts. You can hover over words likely to be unfamiliar and get the translations. 2) Use Google Translate to translate snippets of French news stories, and listen to the not entirely horrific computerized audio. 3) Try Pimsleur French, especially if pronunciation is a problem. 4) Learn to ask people what they just said. Write sentences down. Look up words.

    Forcing yourself to do one of these things for at least a few minutes each jour, or something similar, will get you in the habit of tackling the foggy parts of French as a routine. Work you do for at least a few minutes a day, you will end up doing for more than a few minutes, especially as you make progress.

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    Il est vrai que le français est une langue très difficle à apprendre.

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    Translation People

    It’s a bit surprising that you haven’t learnt french after 18 years, but if you don’t have French friends or read French books then it’s understandable. It’s amazing how we can live in our own little bubble (not a criticism, I do it too), living one way (in this case the English way) in our home and then living a completely different way (the french way) when out of the house.

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    Don’t worry about you ability to speak French, during the conversation group, with a little more practice I am sure that you will succeed. It is good though to hear there are groups such as this one that promote young people to learn another language.

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    Nathalie Roy

    Well, besides lots of practice, there is no miracle way of getting better in French. Plus as long as you do some effort, the French seems happy.


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