Matt is one of the co-founders of Lost in Frenchlation, an organization that brings French cinema to English speakers in Paris. He founded it with his partner, Manon, (elle est française), while living in Paris so they could finally go to the cinema together - and understand what was going on.
Originally from Sydney, Australia, Matt currently lives in London. He comes back to Paris each month - usually for Lost in Frenchlation events. And though he no longer lives in France, he continues to learn French from afar.
BEFORE ARRIVING IN FRANCE
Did you study French before you moved to Paris?
I learned French for two or three years in my very early stages of life and retained absolutely nothing. I never really took it seriously, coming from Australia. There, learning languages was not a priority and no one placed an emphasis on these courses. So did I have any level of French before I arrived? - I should have, but no, I didn’t.
What were your feelings about learning French?
It’s a really beautiful language, but it's also a very strict, formal language, demonstrated in the way they have vous and tu. That, to me anyway, is the very structured French approach. I come from a beach town in Sydney where there is absolutely none of that. I don’t think I’ve ever called anyone Mister or Miss. So it was kind of a big shock for me.
But overall, it's beautiful, complex and highly intimidating as a language.
LEARNING IN PARIS
Q. Did you want to learn right away?
I did really want to learn it. I thought living here and working here would be really good for finally learning a second language. I did a class with the Mairie de Paris for A1 level - it was really good. You had people from all over the world in the class and English isn’t our common language. So everyone needs to try and speak French. And the teacher doesn’t speak English. We were all at a very similar level, all crap at speaking French, so there was no need to have any inhibitions.
Q. Not knowing any French, were you able to communicate easily when you arrived?
Generally, yes. I was surprised at the amount of English that French people speak. There's a really good level in Paris and I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem where by the end of the exchange, we don’t understand each other. It might take a little while to get there but it will happen.
It also depends on the group of people you’re speaking to. For example, Manon’s grandparents, when we go to see them, there is absolutely no English spoken. But it’s great because her grandma is very demonstrative with me. She speaks more slowly and uses a lot of hand gestures. I think my number one chance to practice French is to go and have coffee with her grandparents.
Q. Where did you take a course when arriving here? Was it helpful? What did you like about it?
The course from the Mairie de Paris was massively helpful. It was a great course and I had a great teacher. She was awesome, really encouraging everyone to speak. She took the time to go through our homework and speak to us individually. I really appreciated it.. Taking 60 hours of French in a couple of months helped me to progress a lot and having somewhere to speak without worrying about sounding stupid in front of people who really know the language was nice.
Q. Do you have any tips for learning French?
My number one tip would be to put yourself in situations where you can’t fall back on English. Perfect example - Manon’s grandparents. If you have a French boyfriend or girlfriend, go hang out with their grandparents.
If you can put yourself in that kind of a situation for a long period of time, I think people would be amazed by how much their French improves.
Are you continuing to make progress with your French?
At this very moment, no, but I have plans to take more French classes. At my office, we are trying to leverage a group of people who are interested French classes. Unfortunately, not enough people are at my level, so I missed out.
Do you have the same motivation as when you first arrived?
I think my motivation varies. If I was actually making progress, my motivation would be very high. But because I’m not making any progress, it’s kind of on the sidelines for now. It’s difficult to find the time or to know if it's realistic, but I am motivated.
A FEW FUN QUESTIONS
Tell us a story. Is there an embarrassing moment you'd like to share?
I came to Paris temporarily thinking “what am I gonna do to make some money. Maybe I’ll try my luck at a bar job?" So I dropped my CV off at one of the Irish pubs. I finally got a call back and we scheduled a practice session so they’d see what I could do. I remember rehearsing beer and cocktail names in French and practicing saying thank you before I went in.
That night, I was surprised by how many non-English speakers were there! I assumed I’d be able to get by without having to know much French. And because it’s a bar, it was loud and I couldn't hear what people were saying very clearly. I don’t think there was a single order where I didn't say pardon so they would repeat it for me. And, I had never operated one of the card machines before, so as I go to tear off the receipt - the wrong way - the paper went flying out and completely unrolled across the bar.
My trial lasted all of 30 minutes before they told me "We’ll just go ahead and wrap it up now." It didn't go well. I realized that I needed to learn more French and I am not suited to work at a bar!
What's a victory that you're particularly proud of?
We went to this town outside of Paris where Manon's friend lives. Her parents spoke absolutely no English but they were just awesome people. Me and her friend’s dad got along so well the whole night. I was speaking ridiculously bad French and somehow getting through it. But we fully understood each other. It was almost as if we weren’t speaking French, we were just speaking.
It was working - I don’t know how, but it was. I shocked myself that evening. And I learned that as long as someone has the time and patience, you can get there.
What is your favorite French word of phrase?
En fait. When I finally figured out what everyone was doing with en fait, I was like, well hey I can do that too. You just chuck that onto anything and it works. Her dad makes fun of me sometimes, but you can always get away with it. It can even make you seem a bit more French than you are.
Also, when I learned about quand-même. That was when I felt like I was really learning how to speak French. It’s kind of like en fait, you can just throw it on the end of anything.
Do you have a favorite place in Paris?
Rue des Abbesses is the most charming typically Parisian street in the whole of Paris, in my opinion. On that street is Le Cave des Abbesses, a wine bar. When you walk in, you just think it’s a normal wine shop, but if you keep going to the back, you'll find the cave. It’s nothing too impressive, but it’s quaint and a really typical Parisian experience. They have a great mixte planche with some amazing wines.
It’s actually a perfect thing to do before a Friday Lost in Frenchlation screening at Studio 28! First, get your ticket, then have dinner and wine. Finally, come back and enjoy the movie!
What’s an interesting cultural lesson that you have learned since being in France?
One thing that I’ve realized about the French, is that even though it’s a very regulated society with vous and tu and more bureaucracy than you could ever deal with - nothing is ever done in a straight line. You know the goal you need to get to, you can see it! But to get there, there are many different paths. And French people, from my experience, they always try and take the shortcut.