My primary motivation for becoming an au-pair in France was to expose myself to as much French as possible. A requirement of Modern Languages degrees is that you have to spend a minimum of eight or ten weeks in your target countries (countries where the language[s] you’re studying are spoken), and I as opted to spend the academic year as an English Language Assistant in Spain, I have to spend my summers either working or studying in France. I decided to au-pair because I believed that I would be totally immersed in French; this hasn’t exactly worked out. Aside from supervising the children while the mother works, the other key aspect of my role is to help the children to practise and improve their English, therefore I speak to them solely in English. Naturally I speak to the father in English as well. Initially the mother and I did speak in French however after the first week there was a gradual shift towards English, and I now speak English with everyone in the house. The kids speak French amongst themselves and to their mum as it is natural to them so, although I’m not constantly speaking French, I am constantly surrounded by and hearing it.
Over the last three and a half weeks I have noticed a marked improvement in my aural comprehension of the language. Written French is significantly easier to understand than spoken as French people tend to speak quite fast and ils mangent leurs paroles (the words often blend into each other and syllables are dropped); this has been the main issue I have had when it comes to fully understanding the spoken language, and I have found it increasingly less difficult over the past few weeks.
During the first week here I visited the mother’s cousin and I had the opportunity to listen to and practise real French. If I didn’t quite understand something they slowed down and explained what they meant, and tried to tailor the conversation to suit me. I’ve spent some time chatting with the children’s grandmother and, at the local school’s end of year picnic, I spent the evening chatting to other French mothers. During the first week I also had the chance to watch the children’s end of year school show. It was performed in and themed around the garden which the children kept – thankfully it was a hot and sunny day.
I didn’t understand the entire show, especially when the younger classes were performing, but this was not necessarily a reflection on me as, at times, the mother said she couldn’t understand what was happening. Understanding children is probably one of the biggest obstacles in a foreign language, as they’re difficult enough in your mother tongue! Children are still learning to speak and often make mistakes in their native tongue that non-native adult learners wouldn’t even make. Their knowledge of spelling and grammar aren’t amazing, they often stutter or slur their words and speak in fast high-pitched voices. They’re a nightmare but, having lived with four French children for almost a month, I know have almost no problem understanding them. I’ve gone from only understanding the odd word to only not understanding the odd word! It feels so wrong to correct them on their own language, but it is my responsibility to help them no matter what the language.
Simply listening to the kids speak is really useful for learning colloquialisms and set phrases. At school we were taught to use le mien/la mienne for MINE and le tien/la tienne for YOURS, however here I have noticed that they often say à moi or à toi instead. One thing that I understood in theory but found difficult to apply was the use of the pronouns en and y, but I heard them used so much in the first few days (particularly en) that their proper use has been embedded in my brain. It’s the small things like this that you can’t pick up without spending time in that country.