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Tongue twister: Why learning French in Brussels can prove tricky
Language-wise, there’s a yawning gap between my pre-moving-to-Brussels fantasy and the awkward, stuttering reality. In my imagination, I’d be thrown into the deep end of la langue française, and would switch effortlessly into survival mode. Following my rapid immersion I’d be having scintillating conversations over artisanal cheese counters, dropping in clever colloquialisms at social events, and telling jokes in French by the end of year one.
In reality, three years in to my Brussels move, despite going to numerous classes, my aptitude for the city’s most commonly spoken language still languishes shamefully beneath the O-Level I scraped in 1988. Why? I have a litany of excuses that I trot out with embarrassing regularity. Am I alone?
As a freelance journalist I spend most days working solo, in English. My husband is, unhelpfully, English. Day-to-day interactions in French are mostly limited to transactions in shops or cafes, and even then the answer often comes back in English, like a slightly discouraging boomerang in the face. I’m sometimes even greeted in English before I’ve opened my mouth – do I walk British too?
I default to seeking out English-speaking friends, and avoid opportunities to form bonds with local like-minded people because I feel self-conscious that my French is so poor. And so the vicious circle continues.
I wonder how, with limited time between work and other commitments, one can break that cycle. No right-minded French-speaker would currently choose to spend an evening listening to me mangling their beautiful language and practising stock phrases on a loop. “Je m’appelle Paula, je suis écossaise, j’aime marcher, cuisiner et jouer au tennis” only gets you so far. (I don’t actually play tennis, but I’d probably pull it out of the bag to fill the silence.)
The desire is there and I’ve taken three language courses. I dutifully completed the exercises and homework, then packed the books away and returned to my actual life, which involves very little French quotidien (see what I did there?) and few opportunities for genuine, sustained, practice.
I might be a bit lazy. I should listen to French-language radio and watch TV, but in the evenings I want a quick fix of news and entertainment and will do anything to avoid wading through it in French. So I return my head to the sand and switch on the BBC, where I can truly comprehend every painful, exasperating twist in the Brexit debacle. It’s clear I need help.
But here’s a proper, less self-pitying, excuse. Many people I’ve met share my view that Brussels is not really the ideal place for language immersion. If ‘unimmersive’ was an actual word, I’d use it for Brussels.
One of the things many of us love so much about the city is also our linguistic enemy – it’s just too damn international. With around one third of the population being non-Belgian, it feels like you’re just as likely to hear Spanish, English or Portuguese in the streets as you are French or Dutch. So many people speak English, it’s too easy to let the months and years slip by without improvement.
And I hate to admit that the multilingual nature of the local population, and of the international crowd, is intimidating. Only now do I appreciate why it was easier for me to learn Spanish in the past, because I was in an environment where few people spoke English and it felt like a level playing field on which we could all practise together, chuckling at our efforts and mistakes.
So perhaps it’s time to take this a little less seriously. Start cracking jokes in Delhaize, delivering witticisms at the cheese counter… if you happen to hear me, please have some compassion and laugh along.
This article first appeared in The Bulletin summer 2019