Learning French ‘On the Fly’

View from the top of the Porte du Peyro in Montpellier

There are many ways to learn a language. It can be a strictly academic pursuit involving years in school studying verb conjugations; it can involve a combination of years of study followed by a stint abroad; or, without any formal education it can just involve a move to your country of choice to see what happens.

The latter is the path that Terra and I have chosen. Was it the right path? Ask me in a few years and I may be able to tell you then. One thing that is certain, though, is that it is definitely the most interesting way to do it.

I’m calling this strategy the ‘on the fly’ method. Of course, we have taken some formal classes since we arrived (more on that in a bit), but most of our learning to date has been much more informal and based on one simple question – what must I know to survive to the next day? Don’t believe me? Check out a few of these ‘snapshots’ of what it’s like to learn French ‘on the fly’!

Snapshot #1: Terra and I enter the gloriously chaotic Saturday market in Montpellier, the Marché des Arceaux. We walk past a stall called ‘Bouby’, which is one of our favorite places to get yummies. At this point, I decide to yell – more than a little triumphantly – “BOOBIE”!

Terra and I at the market – just not in front of ‘Bouby’

You see, the previous time we visited the aforementioned stall I was trying to work out how to correctly pronounce the name in French. ‘Bow-bee’ wasn’t quite right. But at this moment the stars aligned and I was sure that I had it. Only after I yelled it did I realize that I had just yelled the word “Boobie” in a crowded market. And honestly, I’m still not sure if this is the correct pronunciation.

What is learning French ‘on the fly’ like? Moments of excitement (‘I figured something out!’) followed closely by moments of horror (‘No I didn’t – and I just embarrassed myself!’)

Snapshot #2: Terra and I enter the tram, and immediately an older guy with a beer in each hand (who appears to be on beer number 7 or 8) starts to talk to us in French. We gather that he’s trying to tell us that Terra looks like an American actress (he’s struggling to decide whether it’s Jennifer Lopez or Julia Roberts…who look…not at all similar). And he’s trying to tell us a lot more stuff, but we are running into language barriers again and again.

interesting things happen on the trams…

Hoping to draw from another language, he starts a line of questioning. Do we speak French, he asks? (no) Italian? Arabic? (no and no) Any other language besides English? (sheepishly, no) Instead of getting frustrated with us, he tries to get other people on the tram to translate what he’s saying for us. Eventually he convinces a teenager who wants no part of this conversation to translate what he was so desperately trying to tell us: “In five minutes the tram will stop in Dublin.” Remember, the guy was drunk…

What is learning French on the fly like? Getting schooled by a drunk man on the tram who knew four more languages than me, and then having the entire tram involved in a conversation about magically leap-frogging to another country.

Snapshot #3: I did it! I finally overcame my most excruciating linguistic challenge. What might that be, you ask? Well, ummm….(quietly)….saying my name correctly.

Before you judge me, understand that I had to entirely ditch ‘Nate’ when I came to France. French people simply don’t like saying Nate, and they either refuse to or simply can’t understand the sounds coming out of my mouth when I say ‘Nate’. And they especially don’t like saying ‘Nate Joy’ – too many consonants and just too abrupt. You can’t make that sound French no matter how hard you try.

So, quickly after arriving in France, I opted for ‘Nathan’, which works out well anyway since it is the name I use for my Facebook profile. But actually pronouncing ‘Nathan’ in a way that a French person understands is possibly even more difficult than ‘Nate’.

For a while I defaulted to ‘Nat-an’ (rhyming with the guy with horns), then I tried ‘Nuh-tan’ (putting the accent on the last syllable). It was only with significant amounts of practice that I finally got it right – ‘Nat-on’, which a heavier accent on the first syllable. Ask Terra – I practiced this at home (sometimes with my friend ‘Google Translate’) every day for weeks.

every single day…

What is learning French ‘on the fly’ like? Having to practice saying your name before you go out into the world.

Snapshot #4: But it’s not just me! Terra, too, has had her own unique set of challenges. Back in May, she decided she’d like to do something a little different with her hair. She was going for a very light purple shading – almost imperceptibly light.

Cammy and I walked with Terra to her hair appointment ‘chez le coiffeur’ (hairdresser). We dropped her off at 10 a.m. Four hours later, this is the Terra that came back to me.

Terra looking a bit uncertain…

Now don’t get me wrong, Terra looks beautiful in any circumstance. But afterwards what she described was one misunderstanding after another with the stylist. And when you’re dealing with hair, there’s really no saying ‘No thanks’ after the fact…

What I’ve described is just four examples of literally hundreds. Every second of every day, we are learning French ‘on the fly’. And although it sounds (and can be) a bit disheartening, it also can be magical.

Cammy, of course, is learning French alongside us – and as you can tell by the picture, even she is feeling a bit frustrated by it all!

Cammy says “What’s up with all this French?”

Clearly ‘On the Fly’ Was Not Enough

our first day of French class

Learning a language completely ‘on the fly’ is at best frustrating, and at worst dangerous. So in June, we decided to up our game a notch and enroll at LSF, one of the pre-eminent language schools in Montpellier.

our teacher Elise pointing out vocab words all around us!

From day one, we knew it was the right decision. We had no idea that we would enjoy learning alongside other people so much. And we definitely did not expect that we would have so much fun and make some great friends in the process.

Going to LSF felt a bit like going to college all over again. LSF has this whole thing figured out; not only do they hire top-notch teachers, but they also have an entire social program for students. As a student, you could literally go to an LSF-sponsored event every day of the week if you wanted to. For example, whoever wants to can join Grant (also known as ‘The Director of Fun”) every Tuesday, and learn how to play pétanque (which is similar to bocce ball). Check out the video below (and note the good-natured jab at Americans).

That’s great, Nate (er…Nathan), you had a wonderful time, but did you actually learn any French? Well…as the French say – it’s complicated.

The short answer is ‘yes’, we did advance in our French based on our time at LSF. The lessons (taught masterfully by Elise) put some structure around all of the ‘on the fly’ learning we had done to date. As a result, we started picking up a lot more words and phrases we heard in the street, we understood most signs a lot better, and we were able to be a bit more confident overall.

Unfortunately, due to work constraints (and Nate actually getting sick again!) we were only able to go to class for about 3-4 weeks. And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that you don’t advance far in any language from 3-4 weeks of classes.

In addition to the additional confidence, the best thing that’s come of this is the friendships we’ve built, making fabulous friends such as Chris, Annie, and Elise. And I won’t brag too much, but Terra and I edged out Annie and Chris in a US – British Isles pétanque showdown. I think we’ll have a 2020 rematch in Dublin (the next stop on the tram, remember!?!).

believe me, this game gets really serious
I was not aware of my wife’s pétanque skills prior

No, Really, It is Magical

So, after just a few weeks of being guided in our learning, it was back to the ‘on the fly’ method for us – with a few extra tools in our tool chest. (I do think that I need to mention here that we’re also using some actual apps to help accelerate our process – primarily Pimsleur).

And it’s not just language that we’re learning, it’s culture. We understand how many kisses (bises, in French) to greet people with depending on where you are in the country (three in Montpellier, two in Paris, etc.), we understand the rhythms of French life better (when stores are closed, what you’re supposed to eat/drink if they invite you out at 6pm, etc, etc.), and so, so much more…although I still don’t have a straight answer when you stop saying ‘Bonjour’ (Good day) and start saying ‘Bonsoir’ (Good evening). French people just ‘feel it’, but I always ‘feel it’ incorrectly. Update: A good French friend just told me that 7 p.m. is the unofficial time to start saying ‘Bonsoir’ – although she also noted others may not have the same idea.

more fun times with friends from LSF. Thanks Mo for the great dinner!

Learning the language ‘on the fly’ – and often in partnership with the French person in closest proximity to us at any given moment – is a magical experience. Almost every day we have small victories – understanding how to say something new, being greeted by someone who recognizes us, or just having a good laugh with a drunk guy on the tram (we don’t have a high bar, necessarily). You might say we are taking the slow track, but we are getting there! And even Cammy is feeling more relaxed now…

Update: I had my daily conversation with my best friend (Google Translate, remember?), and she said that ‘Bouby’ is indeed pronounced ‘Boobie’. Ah, the sweet smell of vindication!



  1. Fascinating slices of everyday life as an American learning to navigate and negotiate a life in France. Couple questions/comments. One thing I notice in your photos is something we almost assuredly would not see in the USA: The train rails are on grassy strips. And I love Terra’s “not so very light purple hair.” All of your readers (and maybe even you) would be curious about what happens for four hours at the hair stylist. Do they offer wine? That’s not unheard of here (well, here in the USA; it is unheard of in Utah). But most importantly I’d like to know what friends serve when they have you for dinner. Mo’s dinner looked casual, but the French have a way of making complicated things appear effortless.

    Keep them coming and thank you for transporting me to Montpellier.


    1. Thanks Karen! So glad you are enjoying the posts. Yes, the grassy strips are interesting…I think what stands out to me is how integrated the trams are into the flow of life – you don’t even realize they are there most of the time as they are so quiet. However, the tram drivers are quite good at slowing down if they sense a pedestrian isn’t paying adequate attention.

      Terra was offered coffee/tea/water, but no wine – although I would suspect some would. There are as many hairstylists here as there are Starbucks in Seattle…and honestly we haven’t figured out what makes one good vs. average. I wouldn’t say though, in general, that they make it a spa-like experience.

      Good call on Mo’s dinner being casual. I should have explained that he is actually Saudi Arabian (a classmate that we met in French class) and he made us an amazing meal from his homeland. Our experience is that dinner covers several courses (all pretty light) that are served over a few hours. But I’ll tell you more as we learn more, as we are still slowly making French friends to have us over for dinner!

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