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!

PARISIAN CHIC, all you need to know about style with character


PARISIAN CHIC, A Style Guide by Ines de la Fressange with Sophie Gachet, Flammarion, S.A.,Paris, English language edition, 2011

This is a review of my favourite book on style and elegance. I first read it six years ago and still read it for tips, ideas or inspiration. The creator of this book, Ines de la Fressange, is a respected fashion icon since the eighties. In 1983 she was the first model to sign an exclusive contract with an Haute Couture fashion house in Paris, Chanel. Today she is still actively involved in the fashion world, creating her own designs for her store. She has also written Parisian Chic LOOK BOOK – What should I wear today? and The Parisian Field Guide to Men’s Style. She continues to work in collaboration with various fashion houses. Sophie Gachet who worked with her for this book is a fashion journalist.

Style is about attitude

This book covers four main themes, how to dress, how to look beautiful, how to inject style into your house, and what to do when you are in Paris. Every theme contains colourful paragraphs with thoughts, tips and ideas. There is advice on what to do and what not to do! She makes some very specific suggestions for the basic elements of a comprehensive wardrobe and beauty cabinet. She gives lots of addresses of great stores too, both physical and online.

Ines has created herself the illustrations throughout the pages, and her daughter is the model in the fashion shots. This gives a very personal tone to the book.

The heart of this book

This book definitely achieves its goal, and more. It makes you love style, Paris and yourself! The playful approach makes the ideas relatable and easy to read. And it also makes you realize you don’t need to obsess about rules. For a truly Parisian attitude let your spirit free! Love and respect yourself!

The Parisian follows a few golden rules, but she likes to transgress too. It’s part of the style.” (p.11)

I like Parisian Chic because it provides guidance without being restrictive; it provides a starting point but leaves enough room for a personal touch. I enjoyed the ratio of words to images. There is enough text to explain and enough images to visualize and inspire. I love the fact that you can also see the author’s character shine through the pages, confident, unapologetic and radiant.

This book makes sense and it doesn’t lead to vanity. It leads to self reflection. Throughout there are remarks reminding us of the basic rules of taking care of ourselves.

Don’t go bankrupt buying expensive face creams – the best beauty parlor is your local dentist. An attractive smile and great teeth are the best way to forgive and forget the rest!” (p.117)

The message is clear. Don’t try to be someone else; try to be the best version of you. Let yourself shine through understated garments and accessories that function well together. Carefully chosen elements will add finesse to a woman that is oozing confidence and ease.

I first read this book a little after the birth of my youngest daughter. I had just returned to my normal weight and was in need for some new and timeless outfits. In my world, being a mom of two doesn’t allow for extravagant and ephemeral choices; not enough time, not enough money. So I decided to stick to her suggestions and over the years I bought several of those pieces. Her advice never failed me. I managed to accumulate a collection of basic items that can take me everywhere. No need to run around at the last minute. Unless I feel like it!