Learning French in my forties. What do you want to learn?

Today I received my C1 Certificate in the French Language. According to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, C1 means that I am now officially a proficient user! A courier rung the bell at the front door and handed it to me. I didn’t even have to go to the French Institute to get the document. Very convenient since the Institute is quite a long way from home. Receiving it gave me great joy and reminded me of this journey of learning French over the last six years.

This certificate is now on my wall and I smile every time I look at it. Not only because I learned the specific skill, but also because I see it as proof that I can actually still learn something new and demanding.

Six years ago I didn’t know a single word. My 40th birthday was just around the corner. I admired French culture in terms of fashion and cooking and style. One has to appreciate the role of France and Paris in fashion and cuisine as well as literature and philosophy. There is the French Revolution and its contribution to modern history; initiating the decline of the absolute monarchies and the creation of republics and liberal democracies. There is May 68 and the fight for human rights and equality.

Apart from all that historical detail, I like their style, that “je ne sais quoi” of the French woman, the beauty and mystery of Paris.

Colourful children's books.

Children’s books

So when my children started learning French at school, I said: “Why not me? I want to learn French too!”  And so I started. I found a teacher, bought my books and began studying. My first books were full of pictures, books destined for kids about 10 years old. But it was fun. I felt so young and enjoyed this freshness so much.

I was a good student and so after about 9 months I decided to take the A1 level exams. A1 means breakthrough or beginner level. When I went there, my fellow exam takers were around 11 years old and I was practically their mum. Still I enjoyed this. In the corridors leading to the classrooms for the exam they were all at the height of my shoulder.

At the entrance the guard looked at me strangely and said: “Mums are not allowed in!” To which I replied: “I am here to take the exam myself.” That was a bit awkward.

I felt so youthful; so eager to learn more. I knew then, as I know now, there is always so much more to learn. My first exam was in May 2012. Three years later I sat the exam for B1, Intermediate user. Studying got a bit more demanding and yet again at the exams I was significantly taller than everybody else in the corridors.

In May 2016 I sat the B2 exam and things got quite serious now. This denotes a vantage independent user. The oral exam is particularly demanding since this Certificate is a prerequisite for acceptance to French Universities. I was so stressed that I left my Identification card at home. On top of everything I had to cover for the exam, I also had to negotiate a time allowance for checking my credentials. My husband was coming in a hurry to bring me my ID! Crazy! Making all those arrangements in French was so stressful! But then again, it was my fault. My stress brought me even more stress. I did manage to pass the exam though and my score was not that bad, considering… It was 17 of 25.

I am so embarrassed about this story, I didn’t tell anyone for years. I even made my husband promise he wouldn’t tell anyone. Even at this moment as I write this, I am not sure whether I am going to leave this bit in or delete it. Looks like I’m leaving it.

And after that I decided to continue learning French. I said I would learn the language, so I figured why not take it all the way. C1 Certificate means proficient user. That’s enough for now. I wasn’t the tallest person in the room anymore; not even the oldest one. Plus, this was definitely among the most difficult exams I have ever taken in my life. (And I have taken quite a few.) It lasts for four hours nonstop. Towards the end I knew my essays could do with some rephrasing or some amendments but my mind wasn’t functioning properly anymore. I literally couldn’t improve my writing any further. According to statistics, at this point it is far more likely to replace what is right with something wrong rather that the other way around.

As far as the oral exam was concerned, success! I had my ID with me! No unnecessary stress. And although I have never lived in France or had any serious practice speaking I was able to get my biggest score ever: 20 of 25! How? I was self aware and realistic enough to focus on what I could do well. Pronunciation was not going to be my forte. Technique was! I learned all there was to know about how to structure my presentation and give substance and cohesion to any theme. It worked!

Thanks to that experience I am also writing this post today. The exercise of writing essays in French again and again for the last years made me gain the confidence to start this blog. And now I can write whatever I want and in a language that comes naturally!

Before I go I would like to say this: If I did it, you can do it too! And it doesn’t have to be French. You can learn anything you want to. You just have to play to your strengths.

  • In your week isolate the time you can spare for studying, it doesn’t have to be long but you have to be systematic about it.
  • Play to your cognitive strengths. Identify your strong points and utilise them to your benefit. Are you good with structure, numbers, memorising? Or do you look for deeper connections? Does it help to read out loud or keep meticulous notes?

Don’t worry. Honestly. You can do this and find joy in the process as well! Even if it is because you are the tallest person in the room!

Colourful french macaroons,purple, pink, yellow, white. Yummy!

Colourful french macaroons

What did you thing of my experience? Send me your thoughts below!