When Notre-Dame burst into flames, I turned on the French TV news and realised that I had little vocabulary for either fires or churches. Whole sentences about collapsing spires were unintelligible to me.
This happens a lot. When I moved to Paris in my early 30s and started learning French practically from scratch, I knew I’d never sound like a native. But I envisioned a hero’s journey in which I struggled for a few years, then emerged fluent, or at least pretty good.
Fifteen years later, I’ve made strides, but they’re not heroic. I’ve merely gone from bad to not bad. I can usually follow the news, handle transactional conversations and muddle through any situation. Interviewing people is fine, because I’m mostly listening. If required, I can read French books.
Yet my French is still riddled with gaps and mistakes. When I try to tell a story in French, I sense that the listener wants to flee. Things I’ve done recently to avoid writing formal letters — a staple of French administrative life — include not reporting a slow leak in my bathroom and not filing for possible medical malpractice.
Shouldn’t I be much better by now? Why is language learning so difficult?
Hoping for an expert opinion — and perhaps some expert solace — I phoned Joshua Hartshorne, the director of the Language Learning Laboratory at Boston College.
The sorry state of my French doesn’t surprise him. In a paper last year on which he was a co-author, based on an English grammar test taken by some 670,000 people, he found that — even for children — learning a language takes much longer than I’d thought. Children need seven or eight years of intensive immersion to speak like a native. These years must start by about age 10, to fit them all in by age 17 or 18, when there’s a sharp drop in the rate of learning. (He’s not sure whether this drop is caused by changes in the brain or in circumstances).
And native speakers keep perfecting their grammar into their 20s. They reach a level called “asymptote,” when they’re not getting noticeably better, by around age 30, the study found. (But vocabulary peaks at about age 60, according to a study in Psychological Science. That’s probably because native speakers have had time to accumulate lots of words, and they haven’t started forgetting them.)
What does this mean for someone who started learning French in her 30s? Hartshorne says my language-learning ability had sharply declined by then and was getting worse each year. In his study, non-native English speakers who had been immersed in English in their late 20s made only slightly fewer grammatical mistakes than native speakers in preschool.
And though I live in France, I’m not immersed enough. I use French for work, but I speak lots of English too, including with my kids and husband. I don’t have an “Ecole horizontale” — a romantic partner with whom I speak only French.
I’ve tried to compensate by periodically taking French courses. And most mornings, I circle unknown words in Le Monde, then transfer them to sticky notes above my desk. But I recently discovered three notes reminding me that “ras-le-bol” means “fed up.”
“Nothing seems to work as well as just speaking the language all the time,” Hartshorne said.
You can learn basic grammar and vocabulary at any age. That explains my “good enough” French. But there’s also an enormous amount of low-frequency words and syntax that even native speakers might encounter only once a year. Knowing any one of these “occasional” words or phrasings isn’t essential. But in every context — a book, an article or conversation — there will probably be several. They’re part of what gives native speech its richness.
In other words, no matter how many sentences I memorise or words I circle, there will always be more. “You can get pretty good pretty quickly, but getting really, really good takes forever,” Hartshorne explained.
And your peak level might not last. I used to interview people in Portuguese; now the language merely sounds familiar. Most of what remains from three years of Japanese is a haiku I learned for extra credit in high school.
Confidence matters too. It doesn’t help that with French, I’m studying a language that’s considered such a treasure that it’s presided over by a group known as “the immortals.”
Hartshorne also points out that native speakers have exceptional precision. Even someone with 99 per cent grammatical accuracy sounds foreign. He guesses that I have about 90 per cent accuracy, which shouldn’t feel like failure. “Imagine if you decided you were going to pick up golf in your 30s, and you got to the point where you could keep up in a game with professional players. You’d think that’s actually really good. But for some reason, just being able to keep up in language feels not as impressive.”
At least my struggle probably has health benefits. A study published in the journal Neurology found that being bilingual delays the onset of dementia by four and a half years. Another study found that bilinguals were better able to recover cognitively from a stroke.
And I revel in small triumphs, like discovering that a woolen ball on a sweater is a “bouloche” (I learned this recently from my dry cleaner) and that French Jews and Christians use the familiar “tu” when addressing God. There’s also the pleasure of realising that a French hypochondriac is merely a “hypocondriaque.”
Often I can improvise. When my kids brought home notices telling me to check their hair for “poux” (pronounced “poo”), I correctly deduced that it meant “lice.” But later, in a first-aid course, I was perplexed when the instructor told us to immediately check an unconscious person for “poux.” (He demonstrated this by leaning over the mannequin’s head). It took me a while to realise that he was telling us to check for “pouls” — a “pulse,” pronounced identically.
I should probably accept that my French will never spark joy in anyone else. It’s part of accepting, at midlife, that I’m subject to the same rules as other people and that there are things I won’t do.
But I still expect to get much better one day. It would be hard to live in Paris if I didn’t. I recently read an article — in English — claiming that many French people find their own language difficult and are convinced that they speak it poorly. Perhaps feeling bad about my French is proof that I’ve gone native after all.
–New York Times News Service