Making Headway – Registering at a French University.


language school

A couple of months ago I threw a book into the dustbin. I have never thrown a book away before, but then again I have never disliked a book enough to warrant doing so. What was the book, you might ask? Humiliating an author is not very ‘bon esprit’ but some may recognise the book  nevertheless.

Every so often I pick up a book written by an author who has started a new life abroad. Most are amusing or heart-rending or downright outrageous tales of  courage or mishap in the face of adversity. The particular tale that ended in the waste-paper basket was one in which a woman had simply given up her life abroad. Of course many have given up on a life inundated with drama and catastrophe, and there is nothing wrong with that; but the author of the book in question had given up on their dream long before the book was written, and the book was merely a justification of the decision. It nearly killed me to read it, but I dedicated myself to every page in the hope that somewhere along the line the author would “DO” something to try to halt the inevitable decision to quit and head home her the country of birth. I wanted to see her try. She never did, and by the time I had finished it, I too had nearly given up on hope in life itself!

Many of the issues faced by that author were ones that I have faced myself, ones of loneliness, friendlessness, boredom and isolation. They come to all of us at one time or another, heightened by the foreignness of the adopted country itself. What made me so desperate about this particular book was that at the end of every page I wanted to shout

“stop – there must be a way…. couldn’t you..?”

but of course it was far too late to say anything, even less protect other readers from her depressing prognosis that it was quite simply impossible to make ‘it’ work.

Probably the two hardest issues to deal with when moving abroad are employment and financial stability,  and friendships. Every nationality has a different approach to these two major issues, none more so than the French. In the last year, after having stagnated for at least two, my life lurched forward a gear or two, and everything started to fall into place. This week, as a result of a lively discussion between a wide variety of nationalities, the subject of friendships in France arose and our understanding of them finally started to fall into place. How did I happen upon this group of foreigners? Quite simply, I decided to enroll into French university!

One of the main barriers to friendships and employment in a foreign country is of course language. Having four children in the French school system I observed two things. Firstly, total immersion is key to language learning, secondly mastery of language and immersion enables the development of friendships and the creation of opportunity. Nowhere else have I noticed the power of the word of mouth for career and life development than in France.

So it was that last December I handed over my CV to the Bureau of Tourisme to apply for their “Formation” to be a “Guide Conferencier” (tour guide), and acceptance onto that training course opened the door to university in France. It wasn’t ‘per se’ the training course that made university possible, but thanks to one of the other trainees I met along the way. The young Italian trainee was at the time enrolled at the University of Rouen studying the DELF/DALF/DUEF course. Essentially a Diplôme de la Langue Français pour les Etrangeres. (A diploma in French for foriegners) It appeared that holding the “Diplôme” was an essential step in career development, further education, and becoming confident about conversing in a French friendship group. Having suceeded in passing my “Guide Conferenciers” exam, a French oral, and being painfully aware of my limitations in the language as a result, I decided that to do this university course was the next logical step.

In June, I downloaded the application forms online for the “Departement des Lettres”, compiled my CV, wrote a “lettre de motivation” and photocopied and translated my degree certificates. Then I left for my summer holidays. When I returned, a “pre-inscription” form had been sent to me. In principle I was accepted for the course, but not before I had completed a three hour French exam. In September I sat the exam which consisted of  a French multiple choice grammar paper, an oral comprehension exam and a written comprehension exam. The following week we had our results. According to the French system there are a series of “niveaux” (levels) of positionment. Broadly speaking A1,A2,B1, B2 and C1; A1 being unable to communicate, and C1 being fluent.

“If you don’t understand what I’m saying” said the course director in the exam hall “leave now, forget the exam – you will be A1!”

I was placed into the B2 group, and the attainement of the B2 diplôme at the end of the academic year is the all-important “golden milestone” into life in France. The B2 enables everything from entry at Master’s degree level at a French university to acceptance into professional jobs; and crucially competence around the French dinner table! The C1, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!

At the time of the Guide “Formation” I was probably feeling a little like the author of the book. French friendships had developed to a certain level, but then had seemed to meet a wall, from where close friendship, as we’d understand it from an English point of view, seemed unobtainable. As one of the Russian students in our first lively university discussion so accurately described it, even four years on, French friendships seemed “superficial”.

“But not so”, exclaimed the professor of our first French oral lesson, the problem was that we simply didn’t understand the French!

The genuine true close friendship with a frenchwoman takes years to develop. The idea that one could become close-friends with a French woman in a matter of months is unthinkable. French friendships are like fine wines or cheeses. They take years to mature, at first they are one dimensional and without depth, they move through specific stages of development, and with each phase they develop a new layer of warmth and understanding, until at last, often six or seven years on, they reach full maturity, with trusted nuances understood facets and a reliability beyond question. When a french woman at last decides to commit to a close friendship, it endures through thick and thin and to the end. A true french friend will rise from her bed in the early hours of the morning to aid in a crisis and at the drop of a hat, in full knowledge that the gesture will be reciprocated without question. But until that stage, the women must first be aquaintances, then copines, then friends before ever achieving the exaulted status of close friends.

Indeed, as our professor explained, the very British or American manner of “divulging all” in the early stages of aquaintence or “copineship” frightens French women away. The idea of discussing private family activities and issues within an aquaintance group is “très mal élévé” and typically the French will withdraw in face of it. It does now go to explain why in my early days in France no-one ever seemed to discuss their weekends in the school playgroup on a monday morning.

French women do however like to share – lifts to children’s activities, information about activities and events, offers of hospitality and discussions about current affairs. They like nothing better than voicing concerns and opinions about life-style and culture in general. But what is private stays private until a friendship nears maturity.

“And that” said our professor “brings us back to the matter in hand”;

For the B2 course is about dispensing with chatting about the simple day to day life; and is the training for debate on current affairs and culture. The B2 is the enablement of dinner party discussions and  job interviews with all the necessary vocabulary. And when we have finally attained our B2, the French women will probably know an awful lot more about what kind of person we are from our cultural and political contributions to conversations than they ever could have done after endless divulged stories about our weekends.

Registering at French university is about more than just learning a language; it is about understanding the French and their cultural differences and becoming more like them.

When the author of the book threw in the towel in the face of what seemed to be a stagnation of friendship and the inability to find something to do with her day, if only she had known she was facing “une petite pause” in the natural stages of development of becoming closer friends with the French, and what to have done to overcome it, she may have persevered and succeeded yet.

For making a success of it abroad necessitates mastery of language, total immersion into culture and re-education of preconceived ideas.

…helped along the way with a healthy dollop of “le diplôme B2 “