Language Stories
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Language Stories

French in a Bubble

Thoughts on following the less travelled path in language learning.

…Because a French bulldog is a cuter visual than a croissant. (Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash)

Let me tell you a story about finding a way to practise a language I fell out of love with for some time. And it doesn’t involve improving my level on the CEFR scale or forcing myself to speak every day.

The prehistory

My relationship with French was strained, to say the least, pretty much from the beginning — and by the beginning I mean the three-year-long compulsory course at the secondary school that started in 1995. Ages ago, right? Before that, I’d been already learning English and Russian for four years and I started Latin at the same time as French. All those languages seemed far easier — their logic, grammar and pronunciation didn’t freak me out as French did.

Don’t get me wrong, I really wanted to learn French. I visited Paris a year earlier (which was my first ever trip abroad) and I had close family there. My favourite cousin was a native French speaker so I would have someone to practice with at some point. And yet the language turned out surprisingly difficult, especially its pronunciation which affected both my ability to understand other people and to produce the correct sounds myself.

Not surprisingly, I dropped French as soon as I finished school. (I dropped Latin as well, despite picking it as one of the electives on my final exam, but for other reasons — I didn’t see any use of it in my life. I’ll tell you more about Latin in a future post.) I kept studying English and while at university, I also added Czech to the list of my beloved languages. As far as Russian was concerned, I temporarily parted ways with it earlier — it was an obligatory subject in my primary school but not in secondary. (It would be a quarter of a century before I’d reconnect with Russian although such a long break wasn’t planned!)

But French… I just couldn’t see myself continuing. I told myself it was too difficult, I didn’t have a talent for it, I would never be able to pronounce the correct “r”, I just wasn’t cut out for it and that’s that. But French wasn’t about to give up. Paris was one of the foreign cities I kept visiting the most often and in general, I kept coming back to France and other francophone countries. I fell in love with a guy with francophone roots and family (although luckily for me, he’s actually English.) I liked French movies. The language was floating around me all the time but I persistently refused to engage with it.

The pandemic

When in April 2020 I went back to studying languages somewhat excessively (yes, the pandemic blues!), I wasn’t sure how to incorporate French into my new study routine. For German and Portuguese I was following good quality, solid courses for beginners. Latin was a no-pressure project for fun with a one-hour group class a week. With Russian, I was at that point playing around, checking out what I still remembered (surprisingly, quite a lot!) and planning a more structured routine for later on. Italian and Czech were by then my trusted friends and I had no problems finding fun and creative resources, including some native content. But what about French?

I tried conversations with a community tutor on italki, I attempted the 30 Days Speaking Challenge once or twice (since it worked so well for Italian!), I started reading “Le Petit Nicolas” (one of my favourite childhood books which is equally fun for adults) but all of it felt forced. I was about to give up once again.

Inspiration

While mindlessly scrolling my Instagram feed one day, I saw a post from Jessica Tefengki Ruelle. If I remember correctly, it was an IGTV recording of her live in which she led a meditation session in French. I knew of Jessica for about a year, I followed her on IG and was more or less aware of what she was doing (well, teaching French!) but as she chose to teach intermediate to advanced level, I somehow always assumed it was too high of a level for me.

This time though I listened through the whole live and realised that I’d understood about 98% of what she had said. And I wrote a comment — something along the line “Oh, I understood about 98%, I wish my speaking was at a matching level.” A few days later Jessica reached out to me via DM inviting me for a new “French Evolution” course revolving around self-discovery, mindfulness, meditation and journaling. I still thought it would be too difficult for me but I decided to try — and that how my adventure with French Sunny Side started.

Self-discovery, meditation, journaling

To cut the long story short, since March I’ve been also enrolled on Jessica’s membership programme, Bulle de Français. It’s actually pretty hard to describe what it is while doing its justice. It’s not a language course with a predictable outcome of taking you from B1 to C1, for example. It’s not a textbook, a coursework or a set of exercises. In a nutshell, it’s a magazine (in French) about self-care and self-development (in any facets possible) with audio recordings and writing prompts, plus a WhatsApp group to exchange messages with Jessica and other learners. The VIP version also has group and 1:1 coaching — coaching, not language exchange or lessons. Basically, it’s a way to develop yourself through the medium of French. And yes, it works as a language learning tool (if you’re doubtful like I was at the beginning.)

How it has helped me

Well, in the most unexpected ways. For starters, I realised that my level of French was higher than I thought, at least as far as understanding of spoken and written language were concerned. Because of the way how the programme is structured (the magazine is sent out at the beginning of each month and you engage with it when you want and how you want), I don’t feel pressured to “do French” on certain days or times but because it’s so interesting and engaging, I simply want to come back to it as often as possible. At the same time, I wouldn’t want it to be longer (usually it’s about 36 pages long) because I wouldn’t want to be overwhelmed and feel like I’m “behind schedule”. It is also perfectly paced to practice different skills and build vocabulary around topics that are interesting for me.

Like most people (presumably) who stumble upon Jessica, I came to her to study French. What I didn’t expect was that I would finally have time for journaling, thinking and introspection. I spend more time reflecting on my life than I did before — simply because my “study French” time is spent on something that is valuable in my life, regardless of foreign languages.

Added benefits

Although at the moment I have the basic membership, without group coaching, I still gained the confidence to start speaking more. I now have a fantastic language exchange partner (her French for my Polish) who has become a massive inspiration behind my idea to develop a Polish teaching business. In May I also took part in the French edition of the Language TV Club which I wholeheartedly recommend (upcoming languages are Russian, Italian, English, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish and many others so check it out!) I realised that I don’t need to wait until my French “gets better” to talk about stuff I am passionate about (like binging crime series on Netflix.)

Don’t get me wrong, I love structured language courses (preferably self-paced!) and they have a valid place in my life when I’m at the beginner level. But to keep the flame alive later on, we all need something more inspiring than flashcards, CEFR-oriented exercises and language exchanges that revolve around general topics. (By the way, shout out to Multilingual Marissa for this amazing language exchange topics list, in case you’re sick of general topics with your language partner.)

And if you happen to be learning French and want to go down the rabbit hole of self-development, then Bulle de Français may be a thing for you.

P.S. None of the links above is an affiliate link. I just share them for the sheer love of these resources.

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Gosia Rokicka

Gosia Rokicka

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Storyteller // IG: @gosiawrites @polishstories // Etsy: GosiaWrites