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    I realised immediately it wouldn’t have hurt to prepare an opening gambit. As my host opened the door and showered me in French, instead of introducing myself I shuffled shyly in with a smile that my rising panic threatened to turn into a grimace.

    This was a sobering moment: I’d arrived in Lyon to do a week-long French immersion course for beginners and my first taste of immersion left me floundering. I cobbled together something that bore little resemblance to what would traditionally be recognised as a sentence: more like a kind of Franglais charades (“Ahhhh, oui!” plus “mon avion”, accompanied by pointing at my watch and gesturing backwards to indicate my plane was late). And the most sobering thing was that, despite barely being able to string a sentence together, I wasn’t a beginner in the language at all.

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    I first started learning French 15 years ago at secondary school, although I now remember more about the effort I channelled into not falling asleep in our after-lunch classes than I do about the actual lessons. Nevertheless, I came out the other side of standard grade French equipped with a firm grasp of the full spectrum of nouns relating to stationary, and some sentences to describe hobbies – mostly ones that I didn’t have. Then, content with reaching this staggering level of conversational ability, I dropped languages altogether.

    It would have surprised me back then to imagine myself 10 years on back in the classroom – and this time voluntarily. On the first morning of my course at the Lyon Bleu international school, I meet my fellow 10 classmates. They have come from Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy and Montenegro, and all for different reasons – some to advance or change their career, others to prepare for a move to France.

    My motivation is more personal than practical. I’ve made multiple attempts to rectify my monolingualism since I left school. I took a paper in French while studying history at university: quickly realising how wide the gap was between my stationary-based lexicon and that used by a 19th-century historian to describe the nature of democracy. I’ve tried grammar exercises at home, lunchtime classes at work, sporadically used apps such as Duolingo and Memrise, Michel Thomas CDs in spurts, and stuck (now dog-eared) flashcards around my bedroom.

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    These frequent but half-hearted attempts put me in the “false beginners” class (which I take as a euphemism for “you’ve learned quite a bit and somehow still can’t really say anything”). We start with the basics – how to introduce yourself, pronunciation, numbers – and I begin to gain hope that this experience is going to be different. First, we are to communicate only in French, even when confused. It feels a tall order, but I soon realise that taking away the crutch of English forces you to be resourceful, often performing communication acrobatics to find references that both you, the teacher and the native Japanese speaker beside you understand.
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Updated: May 30, 2015

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