Learning French in Brussels: reflections on two months of lessons

When I moved to Brussels seven months ago, it wasn’t with the long-term in mind – but as with so many of the best laid plans, this one has gone somewhat awry, and not in a bad way. I’ve been taking semi-intensive French lessons ever since I finished my traineeship at the European Parliament, and I’ve gathered some reflections to share.

For as long as I an remember, I’ve yearned to become competent in a second language, yet lacked the motivation – and the environment – to put this into action. It seemed to me, as a wide-eyed 18-year-old fresh from the rural English countryside, that all my international friends at university had arrived with such fully-developed language competence that I couldn’t see how they’d ever been beginners. It seemed that I would always be so hopelessly behind, I’d never reach the same level.

And thus, I always approached language-learning with the same kind of resigned envy I with which I regard those who can play musical instruments well. Yes, I can sing in tune and have a bit of a knack for strumming patterns; yes, I can pick up a ukulele and strum along to simple songs with ease. But I have never put much effort into practising, and therefore regard these things more as lucky, one-off achievements – something I dip into now and then – rather than an ongoing effort which amounts to something that might be called proficiency. And so, I look at someone at a party who grabs a guitar and effortlessly bashes out “Wonderwall”, and think, I wish I could do that!. In much the same way, I meet someone who’s learned another language – especially as an adult, as opposed to being brought up in a multilingual environment – and I am immensely impressed and somewhat envious.

All this has made me think a lot about what milestones we set for ourselves when learning a new language, and what we mean when we say “fluent”. In fact, there’s a good article on the Education First website about differing perceptions of fluency. Learning a language isn’t like learning to fix a bike puncture – the space between either having or not having this particular skill depends massively on your confidence, environment, and self-perception. It’s well-documented that women, in particular, tend to play down their abilities.

An example of this hitting home for me was when a multilingual EU national I know confidently described themselves as being able to speak French; once we were in Paris, however, they balked – reverting to English after just a few words, they were clearly uncomfortable communicating in French.

Similar experiences have amounted to something of an eye-opener for me. I don’t think my acquaintance was lying, or trying to show off – they just perceive their skills differently. As someone who already speaks three or four languages due to their upbringing and education, it probably didn’t feel like a big deal to add French to that list, even if it’s at quite a low level. Yet I, with a GCSE in French, would never dream of saying I speak it. Even now, I think I’d need to reach a much higher level before feeling comfortable with that phrasing. “Speaking a language”, to me, is being able to confidently and spontaneously communicate in that tongue. But to others, it might be something very different.

Anyway, I decided that, after months of passively picking up words and slowly attuning to hearing French around me, I was going to put my free time to use and finally learn the language properly. I enrolled in a semi-intensive course at Alliance Francaise, a famous language school near the European Quarter of Brussels, and haven’t looked back.

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The classes are lovely and small – between seven and 14 people – and are conducted entirely in French. I began at the latter end of the A2 class, which means that I was an “advanced beginner” (according to the Common European Framework for languages). Now, I’m in the B1 class (the beginning stages of being an “independent user”) and my aim is to complete it, and eventually perhaps even B2 as well (a lot of jobs require B1 level at minimum, and with B2 you can find work easily and even study in French). I have lessons three mornings a week, which last between 2.5-4 hours, depending on the schedule. It’s intense, but so varied and fun is the style of teaching that the time flies by.

My confidence has grown enormously thanks to my great teacher, and I feel more strongly than ever that learning a language is possible whatever your age and background. There’s a great article on the World Economic Forum website on this very subject, which goes into some really fascinating reasons as to why you’re actually better primed to learn a language as an adult.

It’s very telling that in my French classes, at least 80 per cent of the students are women. More prone to self-criticism, women are also therefore perhaps more likely to grasp opportunities for self-improvement. Learning a language can be infantilising; inevitably, you’re going to be taking baby steps, and be spoken to like a child. You have to brace yourself for the fact that you’ll feel humiliated at times, and that this is an area where your achievements elsewhere in life won’t be noticed. I wonder if men – generally speaking, of course – are less prepared for the prospect of embarrassment in front of a bunch of strangers. Plus, as men are still often the main breadwinner (especially if the couple has children), they might have less flexible time for hobbies. It’s a big commitment and it isn’t cheap, after all.

But that’s the wonderful thing about learning a language: it is a great leveller, especially when the classes are all in French. Some people in my class, from Brazil, Italy, and other countries, do not speak English. There are refugees, EU agency professionals in their 50s, students in their 20s, freelancers like me, housewives, and many women who have followed their male partners to Brussels for his job. Not one of us shares a nationality. Yet none of this matters in the context of the lessons – our differences are ironed out as we struggle to become better together. There’s a real sense of camaraderie and shared progress that I haven’t found in many other environments.

Another thing that’s amazing about learning a language is the appreciation it gives you for small achievements. It’s hard to describe the feeling of euphoria when I got through my blood test at the hospital entirely in French; when I first walked into a boulangerie and ordered myself un café à emporter; when I called up one of my favourite restaurants, heart racing, and booked a table for three; when I enrolled onto le prochain niveau at the language school reception desk, and she only had to switch to English once to help me. The best time was when I helped a blind man who had got lost on the busy street, looking for the post office. I was on a high for days.

Inevitably, highs can be followed by lows. I get nervous when I meet French-speaking people whose English is unsteady, feeling ashamed that I can’t talk competently in their native tongue. A lot of cinema and public events are still off-limits. It can be hard to fight off the feeling of uselessness when you say something and everybody looks confused. Sometimes, I don’t ask for help, not knowing how to phrase what I need. I don’t stand up for myself when I’m catcalled; if I’m lacking confidence that day, I shop with my head down, hoping nobody tries to talk to me. I am much less sociable than my English-speaking self, afraid I won’t be understood if I try to make conversation in my local shop.

But at the same time, I’ve learned to be much kinder to myself. I was born and educated in a country that seems to revel in its own lack of interest in other languages (exacerbated by Brexit): where languages aren’t compulsory in schools, where you’re laughed at if you try, and where you grow up with an implicit sense that wherever you travel, you’ll be able to get by in English. Many of the people I’ve met in the EU circle in Brussels are immensely privileged by upbringing; their parents have high-powered, well-paid jobs and so they attended private European or International schools where multilingual education is the norm. This is something I, and my British peers, can never benefit from – you can’t go back and change your childhood.

But you can certainly steer the course of your language learning as an adult. I now see that there is no reason why I can’t become proficient in French at the age of 24. I am slowly becoming more confident in my ability to learn. What Alliance Francaise has taught me is that it is never too late to learn and that with the right teaching, motivation, and being in a country that uses the language you’re pursuing, you can notice real progress in your abilities. I’m proud of how far I’ve come in just two months, and hope to continue this way.

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Donning a beret in Ghent – actually a Flemish-speaking part of Belgium!
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