Learning French in University

Whether I want to admit it or not, French has always piqued my curiosity… Most of the time I forget about my attempts at learning French because of the same reason I dropped it like a hot potato after grade 9… It’s not cool to admit things like that 😉


But the truth is, I did try to learn it a few times… Back in elementary school, I remember asking my French teacher about an exchange program to Québec, only to have her brush my request aside.


When I went to Vancouver to study kinesiology, I remember trying to fit French into my schedule, but wasn’t able to do so because of my commitment to football, and due to the fact that the beginner French classes that I could go to were only given at the downtown campus.


In Ottawa, I was finally exposed to French for the first time in my life outside of the classroom, and when things weren’t going so well, I decided to take a beginner French class as an elective. The boys on the football team chirped me pretty hard for it, but in the end, a few of them came through and supported me as I studied for tests, practiced my oral exams, and prepared for presentations.


My recruiting trip to Université Laval was the first real exposure I had to a full-on French immersion experience in Québec. After being thrown off a bit when I realized that I wasn’t going to get off the train in Laval (which is a suburb of Montréal, but not the home of Université Laval), I continued on down the tracks to Québec City, and this is where my bilingual adventure began.


I’ll fill you in on some of the details about my football experience at Université Laval in another blog post, but it was that visit that solidified my decision to throw myself into the French abyss.


Over the course of my visit, I spoke with an academic advisor for football players in the business faculty, and told him that I wanted to complete my degree in three years. When I asked him if it was possible, he couldn’t give me an answer… He said “nobody’s ever attempted to learn French, and complete a business degree at the same before, let alone do it while playing football, and in three years, so I don’t know”... To which I countered, “Do you think it’s possible?”... His answer wasn’t said in the most reassuring tone, but it was still a “yes” so I said “alright… If you think it’s possible, I’m your guy… I’ve got nothing to lose!!! If I fail, it’s to be expected, and if I pass, well… You'll know that anyone can do it!!”


And so began my journey at Université Laval!



The first semester:

I was put in Intermediate I class at the language school in my first semester, which was where almost all Canadians who learnt French in elementary school go, and for 18 hours a week, we’d be working on our grammar, our comprehension and our pronunciation.


Practicing the “rrrr” sound made for interesting conversations… We repeated that sound so many times that at one point, even Justin had an R in it :s


Of all the lessons learned in that first semester, there’s one that sticks out more than the others… The day I finally figured out why conjugating the verbs “être, avoir and aller” were so important back in the day.


Anyone who’s taken French in elementary school can probably conjugate these verbs for the rest of their lives… Je vais, tu vas, il va, elle va, nous allons, etc… The number of times we had to repeat these conjugations was disturbing, and we had no clue why.


Then, one day, we were learning something totally irrelevant, and it just clicked… I looked up at the prof, and said “ça va être” and “je vais aller” referring to events in the future, and she looked at me with this big smile on her face, and nodded her head in approval, and I had it figured out… Aller is used to put verbs into future tenses.


Later on, I figured out that “être” and “avoir” are used to put things in the past, which meant that there was a real reason we had to conjugate those three verbs so often… They are the three primary verbs that are used to speak in the past or the future. Which is a fairly important thing to be able to do when speaking any language!



The second semester:

In exploring the possibility of being able to complete my degree within three years with my academic advisor, we determined that I would only be able to do one semester of French, and then I’d have to start business classes in my second semester.


Luckily for me, the university was some offering introductory business classes in English for the benefit of their Francophone student population, so we chose two of those classes… I also needed a college prerequisite class, so I had to take Calculus in French, but math’s math, and it’s always come natural to me, so I wasn’t too worried about it being in French.


For my fourth class, I wanted to get a little taste of what the next two years would have in store for me, so we began looking into which business classes I could take in French that would go towards my major.


The only one that fit into my schedule ended up being a first-year taxation class, so we asked to meet the professor to get her approval.


I’ll never forget her reaction when my advisor asked her if I could join her class. I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying, but when she burst out laughing at one point, I got the impression that it was a no.


Once she recollected herself, she said “this class is the most difficult first-year class for most francophone students, there’s no way that some guy who can’t understand a word of French is going to be able to succeed” and the discussion continued from there.


45 minutes later, the prof reluctantly accepted me into her class, and I was made well aware of the fact that I had a huge challenge in front of me.


Determined to succeed, after my first class, I found a spot outside the main lecture hall and put my nose to the grindstone. It ended up taking me three hours to read four pages of text. Moreover, I couldn’t understand a word of what the prof was saying to the class, so I simply sat there, and copied everything she wrote on the board into my notes. This was going to be one heckuva semester!!!


Two things helped me get through that class in French… The first, I was allowed to write my exams in English, and the second, my tutor!!!


Playing on a competitive team at most universities gets you access to tutors who are paid for by the team, and I ended up being matched with a guy who was a gem! He spoke English, he was patient, and he understood exactly how to get me to learn the most amount of material, in the least amount of time. We’d get together for at least three hours a week and go through everything that was presented in class.


At the end of the semester, to everyone’s surprise, after getting an above average mark on the midterm, I ended up with the third highest mark in the class on the final exam, which provided me with my best grade of the semester… The first full on A of my university life 😮


When I went to the prof to thank her for the grade, she said “I didn’t do anything, it was all you… I don’t know how you did it, but congratulations!” (in French, of course).


This gave me the confidence that I needed to continue… If I just killed this class, without even being able to understand a word of what the professor was saying in front of the class throughout almost the entire semester, I wasn’t going to have any problem later on.


After eight months, I was able to understand quite a bit of a regular conversation, if it was being had at a slow enough pace, and I was able to express myself on a fairly basic level in French. Having no bar to compare myself to, I think this is pretty standard, and should be expected if you know of someone who’s thinking about picking up French in university.



The girl:

Even before I arrived at Laval, I was being told quite often that the best way to learn a language was to get a girlfriend, but relationships have never really been a priority for me, as I’ve always had my focus on other things, but in the summer between my first and second year, while I was volunteering at a golf tournament to raise funds for the Rouge et Or, a super cute, bubbly, happy girl kept driving by on her golf cart, and attempting to talk to me… We couldn't really understand each other, but we had a good time laughing about the fact that we barely had a clue what the other was saying.


We kept in touch after that day, and eventually started dating!


I’ll never forget one of our first dates… She had to go to a lake to train (she was a middle-distance runner) so I joined her. Upon arrival, I said something in English, and when I looked at her for a response, I had to ask “Hmmm… you didn’t understand that, huh?”… She replied with a proud “Non” and proceeded to say something back to me in French, and when she looked at me for a response, all she could ask was “Hmmm.. T’as pas compris, huh?”... To which I replied with a proud “Nope”... We had a good laugh, and walked down to the lake for her little training session.


My relationship with her was super unexpected, but it ended up making a huge difference in how fast I picked up French. What was equally as impressive was how fast she picked up English from me. Pillows really do wonders to the linguistic osmosis process 😉


I’d definitely recommend finding friends to learn with, but not at all costs, and only if they’re encouraging you to improve your French… Every so often (a little too often, unfortunately), I run into people who come to Québec for a number of reasons, and who find someone who’d prefer to learn English, and isn’t patient or understanding of our desire to learn French… Such a wasted opportunity!!!


It’s easy for us to fall into our English safety net, especially when so many quebeckers want to learn English, but they have a whole continent to visit, and most popular media to draw from. Québec is the only place in Canada where we can get a full immersion experience, and popular media in French is extremely difficult to access from outside of the province.


First, we have to encourage French-Canadians to help us with our French... We need their support!! But second, we also need to be true to ourselves... No one will ever force us to respond to them in English... We're the only ones who can decide which language comes out when we open our mouths, so if you really want it, you'll have to choose it!



The second year:

There was nothing really all that remarkable about my second year at Laval… I’d already proven to myself, and to the members of the team and the faculty, that I could succeed in French, so it wasn’t too much of a challenge to maintain my average.


By the end of the year, I was able to understand pretty much anything spoken at a pace that wasn’t super fast, and I could express myself at a fairly decent level… I was functional, but not quite fluent, and still had to work hard to get my marks!



The third year:

At some point in my third year, I began to start considering myself as fluent in French… I could understand everything, with barely any problems, there wasn’t much difference in how I express myself today than there was back then, and there was no more difference in studying in English or in French… They both presented me with the equal challenges.


I’ll be writing a couple other blogs at some point on the benefits of studying in French, and tips on learning French faster, so I’ll save the some other tidbits for those posts, but hopefully this gives you a pretty good idea of what one can expect when attempting to learn French, from scratch, while studying at university.


After talking to others who’ve followed similar paths, my case to learning French while studying at a Québec university is fairly standard:

  1. Year 1 - The foundation is created, but abilities are not very functional
  2. Year 2 - Functional, but not fluent… Things still require patience
  3. Year 3 - Fluency is attained… There are no more major barriers or worries


Have you learned French in a similar manner? What was your experience like? Do you agree with my timeline?

Leave a Reply