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16 Things They Don’t Teach You in French Class

From verb tenses to conjugations, sentence structure to grammar, there’s a lot a classroom can teach you about a foreign language.  My 13-year-old decision to take French instead of Spanish (because I didn’t want to be just like my older siblings) really was made on a whim, but it was in that classroom, G27, that I began to fall in love with the French language and culture.  And without that foundational education and my passionate teachers, my love of travel and French would probably look different; honestly, my life would look different.  While I’m grateful for my time in the classroom, I learned so much more abroad than I ever could have in a school building.  Here are 16 things I learned about French culture outside the classroom:16 things they don't teach you in french class

1. Air conditioning is not a given—far from it actually.

This ended up being one of the most difficult adjustments.  My roommate and I had two fans running 24/7, and I still had trouble sleeping in the sweltering heat.  One night I was anything but melting in the hot humidity as I attempted to sleep.  Finally, I got up, grabbed the shower head, blasted it on cold and sprayed it all over my legs and arms.  Not drying myself off, I laid back in bed, hoping the the fan’s draft and my wet skin would cool me down.  And while it helped some, I still felt like the heat would smother me.  I went to our freezer to grab some ice from our plastic ice cube maker bag.  But the ice cubes weren’t completely hardened yet so when I picked it up, all the water dumped out all over the floor.  But it also spilled on my legs so I was happy (haha!).  Long story short: buy a fan—or five.

2. Be prepared to give kisses (bisous) to everyone you meet.

And the cheeks must touch.  Even when I met a guy for the first time, we would say our name into the other person’s ear as we were kissing each others’ cheeks.  Kissing the cheeks of everyone I met felt like an invasion of personal space yet to the French, hugging is very intimate.  Also, the number of bisous depends on the region, and right-left or left-right also vary.

3. There’s much more to the French language than just words.

I pride myself in good sentence structure and grammar.  And these both are vital to any language, but my time in France showed me that there’s a lot more to French than following the rules.  The phrase C’est pas grave is very common yet it’s technically not proper grammar as the ne is missing before est.  I also found that instead of saying “uh huh,” the French like to say “mm mm.”  But beware: this can sound very similar to “huh uh,” which is the opposite meaning of “uh huh”/”mm mm.”  Body gestures can be very helpful in these instances; look for a nod or a shake of the head.Flowers Aveyron Occitanie France

4. Your sneeze probably won’t be blessed.

Whether you sneeze during an exam or in a store, a “bless you” is almost always heard, even if from a stranger in America.  But in France, I maybe heard à tes souhaits (the French equivalent of “bless you”) once or twice the entire summer.

5. Oui oui?  More like bah oui.

Americans love to think that the French go around saying oui oui all the time.  I can’t speak for all regions of France, but I found bah oui to be used liberally in conversation, much more than oui oui.

6. PDA isn’t discreet.

Several years ago I took a European tour with my school to England, France and Italy.  I fell in love with Paris but didn’t really understand its famed nickname, the City of Love.  Sure, it’s beautiful and romantic, but what more?  Living in France for a summer allowed me to really see the culture and the overwhelming presence of PDA.  It’s all so common to see couples passionately kissing or touching on the street, on the metro or in a restaurant.  In America, couples tend to limit PDA.  In France, it’s as if the doors were closed sometimes.  Maybe that’s why the sparkling city of Paris with its PDA-heavy French culture earned its nickname.St Pierre Livron France Travel

7. Pack up before you head out for serious shopping.

Unless you want to pay.  Be sure to bring your reusable bags because virtually all grocery stores charge for bags.

8. Lung cancer?  Who cares?!

Every cigarette box even has fumer tue (smoking kills) in huge block letters yet this doesn’t slow the French down.  I’ve found in America, smoking in frowned upon; it’s not a “cool thing” for teens to pick up.  In France, it’s weird to be at a restaurant where people aren’t smoking.

9. Organic is everywhere. 

Sure, organic isn’t rare in America, but it tends to be associated people dedicated to an organic lifestyle.  But in France, there are aisles and aisles of organic items; it’s honestly hard to avoid it.  Not that all Americans are pro-GMO, but I found that the few French I spoke with to be passionately against GMOs.St Pierre Livron Occitanie Aveyron France

10. Dialects differ by region.

If you’ve taken French at school, you probably studied Parisian French.  This is a reasonable and sensible choice, but even in France, dialects differ by region.  I lived in Occitanie, which is in the deep south of France.  I’d always learned de rien (it’s nothing) as a way to respond to merci (thank you).  But in Toulouse, avec plaisir (with pleasure) was much more widely used.  I’d also learned the word sac en plastique (plastic bag)  But in Toulouse, they use the word une poche, which literally translates to “a pocket.”

11. Prepare yourself to see some skin at the pool or the beach.

Although it’s not culturally repulsive for small children to walk around without a shirt in America, I found modesty for French children to be incredibly different.  A small girl, probably around three years old, ran around the river banks completely naked.  Children run around the city foundations only in their underwear.  And for adults, it’s not terribly different.  It’s odd if a man wears something other than a Speedo, and women tan topless.

12. The French aren’t all stick thin.

There is this conception that America is wildly obese and the French are oh-so skinny.  Multiple French people told me that I wasn’t the typical American because I was so thin.  But in reality, I’m an average size.  And while I don’t have statistics, I felt as if the size demographic among the French seemed similar to my American community.  I understand there are so many factors such as my American suburban community versus this French city.  But the French certainly aren’t all flat-stomached and Americans definitely aren’t all obese.St Martin Laguépie Occitanie France

13. Dogs just walk the streets without leashes.

There goes little Sparky trotting along, no leash.  I was shocked to see dogs just doing their thing sans leash and to never see a dog in the street or running away from its owner.  Some dogs are required to wear a leash, but the majority don’t.

14. Underwear shopping is a normal, casual thing to do with friends.

I’d met this gal pal at a group event not long before, and soon we decided to get coffee together.  We had a nice chat, and once we finished our coffee, she asked if I wanted to tag along with her for some shopping.  I was free for the next few hours so I said, sure!  We meandered down the streets, and she said she needed to stop into this underwear store.  And not even a month later, a different friend asked if I wanted to go underwear shopping with her.  I was a bit surprised that this was such a casual thing to do.  In America, I might take a look around with my best friend, sister or mom, but someone I’ve known for a matter of weeks?  Probably not.

15. Stores don’t revolve around your schedule; you revolve yours around theirs.

After my four-hour language class, I usually was very hungry and just wanted to pick up a little something at a small convenience store after school around 1 p.m.  But Le Petit Casino (convenience store) near my apartment was closed for lunch.  Many stores and businesses have a lunch break from 12-2 p.m. each day so plan accordingly.

16. Don’t expect to accomplish much on Sunday.

In America, Sunday is the perfect day for shopping from groceries to random errands.  In France, there are very few stores open, making it very difficult to accomplish anything.  To fill my time on Sundays, I enjoyed taking walks at the park near my apartment.  (Thankfully, that was open!)

Living abroad truly is the best classroom; you learn lessons, words and oddities that you could never learn in a classroom.  Foreign language instruction is crucial to help you make the most of your experience abroad, but at the end of the day, cultural immersion is the best way to learn.

{What did you learn about another culture outside the classroom?}

3 thoughts on “16 Things They Don’t Teach You in French Class”

  1. I love the list! Growing up in Canada, I had to study French starting from my early years. I also find it quite fascinating that a few points on your list speaks about to how conservative a culture can be for certain situation while not being conservative at all in another haha!

    Liked by 1 person

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