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To practise my French conversational skills, I have become a regular at an event known as Franglish. The linguistic equivalent to ‘speed dating’, it takes place in different bars around Paris, bringing bewildered Anglophones together with Francophones who are eager to practise their English.

Tonight, it is at Le Mécanobar in the 11th arrondissement. I navigate my way through the throng to the back of the bar, where I’m handed a name tag, a drink token, assigned my table number and given the usual instructions – each pair speaks for seven minutes in French then the same in English, before switching to a new partner.

Armed with my glass of Côtes du Rhône, I find my table and await my first partner. While I am not here in search of romance, and have been to Franglish several times before, the mere anticipation always makes me a little nervous. The evening’s organiser starts the clock, beginning the parade of intriguing individuals who will occupy the seat in front of me.

My first partner sits down and we launch into French conversation. She’s an office worker by day, but by night she is a ‘slam poet’, participating in competitive readings. When I mention that I play the guitar, she invites me to a jam session at an underground bar in the 18th arrondissement and promises to email me a list of clandestine joints which will show me Paris’s real musical underbelly. Change…

Next is a young Haitian with a dazzling smile who moved to France in search of a better life than was possible in his own earthquake-ravaged country. He works as a baggage handler at Charles de Gaulle airport. As we both hail from perpetually warm parts of the world, we bond over the shared misery of surviving Winters in Paris. But despite his complaints about the cold weather, his appreciation for the chance at a new life radiates with almost every word. Change…

My third partner works in IT. Although we begin speaking in his native language, he is a shy man of few words and rarely makes eye contact. His hands grasp his beer glass tightly, as if it offers some kind of security. I vainly try the usual conversation starters – childhood home, hobbies and reasons for learning English. I admire the courage it must have taken him to come to Franglish in the first place, but his short answers and lack of questions make the time drag and we still have seven minutes of English to go. Change…

My final partner is an older gentleman – a radiologist whose daughter is going to be an exchange student in England. He wants to learn English so that he can talk to her host family while she is abroad. The smile of lines on his face engage regularly and his eyes light up whenever he speaks of his daughter. He tells me that he rides his bike from outside the Périphérique into central Paris, just to attend Franglish, because he is determined to master the language before his daughter leaves. Interestingly, he also informs me that his most common clients in radiology are injured tourists who have fallen foul of the Parisian streets.

By the end of the evening, as it is after every Franglish session, my head is a jumble of new vocabulary. My first few visits left me wondering if I would ever be able to grasp the language enough to carry a normal conversation. But that is the beauty of learning a language – ever so slowly, things begin to sink in. The jumble of words in your head gradually slots into place, bridging gaps of knowledge to lead you to a whole new level of communication. And your brain no longer hurts at the thought of conjugating a sentence in public.

Originally published in the December 2013-January 2014 issue of France Today

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12 COMMENTS

  1. This exciting way to learn/maintain French in Paris inspires me to return sooner to live there for a season, rather than putting it off while I ‘perfect’ my language skills…in the U.S.!

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