One of the interesting things about Switzerland is that depending on your proximity to neighboring France, Italy, or Germany, the primary language spoken is French, Italian, or German. I am not aware of many other countries the size of Switzerland in which there is such a distinct variation in languages as you travel relatively short distances around the country. (To put the size of Switzerland in context, at just 16,000 square miles, it is less than 1/5th the size of my home state of Minnesota. If Switzerland was a U.S. state, it would rank 42nd in land area behind West Virginia and ahead of Maryland.)
We live in Geneva, which is in the western “Suisse Romande” region where French is the primary spoken language. (Another notable fun fact on Geneva: Only 5% of the border of the city is contiguous with the rest of Switzerland. The other 95% borders France, so is it any wonder that everyone here speaks French!). So I know what you must be thinking: “If French is the primary language spoken in Geneva, how are you communicating with people?”. The answer? I speak French pretty well! And I am guessing that your response to that might be: “Where did you learn to speak French?” So I will tell you. In chronological order, here are the primary influences on my ability to speak proficient French.
1. My top notch high school French teacherI started taking French in 4th grade. By the time I entered JEB Stuart High School in northern Virginia, I had a pretty firm grasp of the fundamentals of the language. Then in high school, I was fortunate enough to have this man, Monsieur Ward (pictured at right) as my French teacher. Monsieur Ward taught levels 3, 4, and 5. (Not only was this man a great teacher, he is also about the Frenchest looking guy I’ve ever encountered!) Monsieur Ward was all business. His rule was that no English would be spoken in his class. He was a great proponent of “total immersion” before there was something called “total immersion”. All lessons were taught and instruction provided in French, and in French only. He was ahead of his time.
2. Our family vacation to France in 2002
We spent three weeks in France in 2002, and to prepare for the trip, I did my best to re-learn as much of what Monsieur Ward taught me all those years ago. I bought some books and I studied. And aside from confusing the word apple (pomme) with potato (pomme de terre) which resulted in me ordering potato juice at a concession stand at the Palace of Versailles, I managed relatively well.
3. My “Friday French Club” meetings
When we learned we would be coming to Geneva, I knew I would need to get in some practice. I also knew where to turn to get it. I made friends with two coworkers, Kodjo, a young man from Togo, and Corentin, an even younger man from France, who both worked on the same floor as me. Then, my son Patrick who studied French in high school and college and also spent a semester abroad in Aix en Provence, expressed an interest in brushing up his French, so the four us created our own “Friday French Club” where we would get together and speak French to one another, covering subjects from our jobs, our families, our hobbies, and the soon-to-take-place World Cup Soccer Tournament in Rio.
We’ve been living in Geneva for over four months now. I get a chance to practice my French every day. I am continuing to study with the goal of being able to navigate any situation or circumstance requiring French proficiency. Its exciting when I can carry on complete conversations with people that know little or no English, and there are plenty of those people in Geneva.
Want a sample?? Here I am offering my own ode to Monsieur Ward, entirely in French, of course.