What to do when you don’t understand 

Being in a group of people speaking French when you don’t understand the language is kind of like when your teenage boyfriend plays you a song he wrote about you on the guitar. The best way to get through it is to sit smiling and pretend like you have at least some idea about what they’re saying.

Most people in my office speak English, which is great, but I’d definitely be better off if I could join in the conversation without needing a translator. Having said that, a little of my GCSE French is coming back to me and I’m getting by with a few phrases and words here and there. Buying lunch is the hardest, because a lot of the places near to work are buffet style and always busy. I just don’t have the vocabulary to order a salad with tomatoes, artichokes and olives under pressure – tomates, les artichauts et les olives – okay so that one wasn’t too hard an example…. In that case I’ve generally found that pointing and smiling works well!

Otherwise, I’ve found that even knowing just a few words is enough to get by in the supermarket and even at the super busy sandwich places. They usually ask the same questions – “eat in or takeaway?”, “do you need a bag?” – and I can just about understand and answer properly in those situations. I can ask for the bill, say bless you when someone sneezes, say that I don’t have a pen, see you tomorrow, have a nice weekend… But off piste, I’m still rubbish.

I’m working my way through the Michel Thomas Method, and really enjoying it but think I’d benefit from some more structured learning (such a nerd, I know). The course of CD’s is great for helping you to recognise that actually you know more vocabulary than you thought – naturellement – but mostly it’s taught me to ask what someone thinks of the current political and economic situation in France. Not such a conversation starter it turns out, especially if you can’t understand the answer.

My French classes should be starting in the next couple of weeks, so hopefully I will be parle-ing français all over the place soon. But for now, I’ll have to make do with the few phrases I do have.

Je n’ai pas un stylo!  

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