I grew up speaking three languages: English for school, Hindi because it was spoken locally in my hometown of Mumbai, India, and Persian/Farsi because in many ways, it was my first language. As if learning three languages wasn’t hard enough, my school’s curriculum required me to study Marathi and taught us how to read Arabic.

What’s more, when I was 23-years-old I decided I should dabble in at least one romance language, so I picked up French. Now, I’m trying to navigate learning and speaking them all.

As previously stated, I grew up multilingual. Thus, I never realized how difficult it was to study a new language as an adult. French, in particular, is unforgiving, and my journey has been rather hard. Jumping from passe compose (past tense) to l’imparfait (imperfect tense) is like trying to climb a mountain in the dark, spotting differences in similar-sounding words is nearly impossible at the beginner level, and grammar rules make little sense.

The nouns have genders; not to mention, learning the numbers from one to 100 is a battle on its own. For example, counting in French is relatively straightforward until the number 60. But since the language uses a vigesimal system, you would call 70 “soixante-dix” which is “sixty and ten.” At 80, you say “quatre-vingts” which is “four twenties.” At 99, it becomes “quatre-vingt-dix-neuf” which is “four twenties and nineteen.”

The number system in French confuses me to the point that I sometimes forget what one and two are called. Just know, if I ever find myself in France, I am never taking down a phone number!

Learning a new language, in a way, requires you to unlearn everything you know about studying them. In the case of learning French, I would constantly overthink lesson structures and question their unusual rules. Most times, there isn’t a reason why a certain noun is masculine or feminine, or why a verb is conjugated a certain way. It simply is.

While some learners lean on Google translate to solve their learning woes, the application is mainly inaccurate, and my French teacher always knows when I’ve used it. It takes a great number of mental gymnastics to power through an hour of studying French, so I turned to the one thing I knew I would never tire of: watching television shows and movies.

The first French film I watched, intending to study via subtitles, was Éric Rohmer’s Le Rayon vert. Then, I re-watched Céline Sciamma’s Portrait de la jeune fille en feu. A month later, I had watched at least 20 films and a few television shows. I could pick up certain words, and my listening skills had improved, but I struggled with the speed at which native French users spoke. Eventually, I convinced myself that immersing myself in the language through its movies was just as good as “traditional” studying.

So, I began to do just that. 

A few weeks later, I watched Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie on a friend’s recommendation. It’s an incredibly dreamy movie about a young woman who secretly orchestrates the lives of the people around her. In doing so, she creates a world entirely of her own. At a certain point in the film, a character says: “Les temps sont durs pour les rêveurs.”

The quote immediately translated itself in my head: “Times are hard for dreamers.” I couldn’t believe it — I had fully understood a dialogue in the film without glancing at the subtitles! I was able to understand a lot of Amélie without being very dependent on its subtitles, and it was the first time I felt like my efforts had been truly rewarded. After that, I took learning French through films very seriously.

I’ve been studying the language for almost a year now. Although subtitles will always be my first love, I’ve employed other tools that are equally as effective. For instance, I’ve read a Harry Potter book in French; I listen to French music; I’ve installed language extensions on Google Chrome; I bought a dictionary. I also keep a journal wherein I periodically write a paragraph about my day in French.

Picking up a new language as an adult is by no means an easy task. The grammar is complex. Its linguistic nuances don’t exist in English. And if you don’t speak another European language, it’s all the more difficult to get through. But it’s a deeply rewarding experience, sort of like a slow-burn romance between the learner and the language itself.

I’m beginning my third level of French soon, and I know it requires me to put in a lot more hours than I am right now, but that’s what the movies are for, right? 

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  • Fatemeh Mirjalili

    Fatemeh Mirjalili is an entertainment writer based in Mumbai, India. Her work has appeared in publications such as TheThings, Film Companion and Times Knowledge among others. She loves writing about pop culture, watching Disney musicals and re-reading Pride & Prejudice for what may seem like the millionth time.