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From Bonjour and S’il Vous Plaît to a French MBA

June 20, 2020 • By

As COVID-19 was ramping up and shutting borders down, I finished my applications to a French MBA program in France. It seemed ever more unlikely with how little we knew about the virus and how it was spreading that I would hear anything back about any international border-crossing-educational opportunities in time for the summer, but I found out a few weeks ago that I was accepted.

What I’ll do about that is a post for another time, but I wanted to share what I did to get myself from functionally zero French in January of 2019 to passing the DELF B2 in December, and finishing up my application two months later. In other words, how I went from Bonjour and S’il vous plait into a French MBA in a year.

First, some background. The scale for European languages follows the Common European of Reference for Languages (CEFRL) goes from A1 (beginner) to C2 (native fluency). You can see a guide here for the recommended hours of French study and practice to advance from one level to the next. To get into a French-speaking Master’s program in France, one needs a C1.

Second, my background. I was a Spanish major at UCLA, and over the last few months of 2018, and through the spring of 2019, I prepared for, and passed, the Spanish DELE B2 and C1 tests. I add this to point out I did have a strong background in another romance language, but also, that I was not single-minded in my French pursuit, and was double-dipping during my ramp up to a summer in France.

Finally, I recognize how fortunate I am to have had time to spend time in France over the summer of 2019. As delightful as the immersion was, I believe the biggest jumps I made came from the regular commitment to studying during the work week, even when that meant getting up at 4am to fit in class before the work day.

What follows is an overview of 2019 in three parts. During Parts 1 and 3, I was working full-time as a daytime talk show producer on a live show. 

Part 1: January – May

The study: 60 hours over 20 weeks = 3 hours a week

I started out this year in the way I recommend anyone to start learning a language: by speaking. Everything else is a slower route to getting where you want. Preply is a great option for finding a tutor, with pricing and schedules that I’ve always found accommodating.

According to my lesson history, I took 60 hours of classes over the first five months, which is about three hours per week. I was also getting ready for the Spanish DELE C1 test, so my attention was divided. As a note, there were a few weeks where, for lack of time, I was doing back-to-back classes, one in French and one in Spanish. This is… not an optimal way to learn.

Extracurriculars (non-class French activities on a more-or-less daily basis):

  • I enjoy the daily Frantastique emails – they are funny, cultural, and varied, often reminding me of small grammar rules that I don’t always have reason to use on a daily basis, but are still important.
  • I read this volume of French Short Stories. Having different speeds and narrators was a nice way to reinforce the progress I was making.

Part 2: June – August

Background

I spent twelve weeks in France, working on vineyards, goat farms, and at the end, studying for three weeks in Paris. As the time abroad wrapped up, I wondered if, in another timeline, it would’ve made more language-learning sense to spend three intensive weeks studying first, and then cementing that classroom theory with weeks of conversation and practical application. 

Maybe. C’est la vie. 

The trip evolved how it evolved, and I wasn’t intending to take language classes at all until a change in plans mid-July, so my takeaway is to approach the language you’re learning with an open mind. You’ll forget things. You’ll mispronounce things. You’ll have awkward encounters. But, maybe an open evening or week or so in your schedule will surprise you, and you’ll be able to take advantage and do something you would’ve never thought possible.

The work:

I volunteered through WWOOF at two wineries (one in Rignac, the other in the Loire Valley), and at one goat farm (in Mecquignies). Though there were brief breaks and chats, the majority of the interaction came at lunch and dinner, and with a mixture of families, kids, and other travelers. I would go from highs of successfully navigating a dinner in French to forgetting the word for fish the following day. 

The study: 120 hours over 12 weeks = 10 hours a week*

Finding myself with some extra time at the end of my summer, I opted for an intensive language (40 hours a week) course at Accord in Paris. For my first two weeks, I was in the B1 course, and finished with the B2 course for my third week. I remember stumbling that third week trying to describe the US healthcare system in French, then I realized I’d be hard-pressed to do it in English. It’s good to keep a healthy perspective.

Extracurriculars:

Part 3: September – December, and taking the DELF B2

The study: 60 hours over 17 weeks = 3.5 hours a week

Despite the title of this post, my year’s plan wasn’t to get into a French university. I couldn’t sleep one night late October and in the bleary-eyed scrolling of the evening, I found an interesting French program about tourism. Then I read the fine print, and to enroll in the program in French, I would need a C1 equivalency by the time I applied in March. Working backwards, it dawned on me that I’d have to take the B2 in early December. Even now, that seems aggressive, and it was. Still, we do what we have to. So I set up a schedule to make sure I was hitting a little bit of grammar, speaking, writing, and reading each day, and moving toward the exam with a consistent effort. This stretch in November was probably the hardest of the year (and if you know about sweeps in television, you begin to understand a bit more the fun I was having!).

The most difficult part of preparing for the test is the oral presentation. It requires a 10-15 minute monologue presented before a panel of judges, followed by a Q&A on the topic (mine ended up being about a theoretical social media service about renting friends for a few hours). But learning how to prepare for this, how to connect arguments, and having to struggle through it with my tutor was the most beneficial part of the process. Too often our conversational partners, in our native language as in the one we’re learning, cut in and finish our thoughts. It really is necessary to force yourself through these mental blocks, and the 15 to 20 minutes of each class that were dedicated to this effort were the most worthwhile.

The test itself was tough, but not more than I’d expected. I ended up scoring an 86%, and above 20/25 in each of the four categories – speaking, audio comprehension, reading, writing. A score below 5 in any category is a fail, as is a score below 50%.

Extracurriculars:

Part 4 & Beyond: Along Came COVID-19

This section gets more complicated. I applied to the universities by the end of February, and had planned to take the DALF C1 in Paris in March. Maybe you know what happened next. I landed in Paris. An hour later, the test was canceled. Four days later, I was told Macron was closing the borders, and I came home, my dreams of studying in Paris cast aside. I had a phone interview in French, and sent in my personal statements and letters, but I hadn’t taken the C1. There went, I thought, my chances.

Then, an email in June. I’d been accepted into a French MBA in Management des Affaires Internationales. The world is no less complicated now, and it’s a decision for a later day. Ultimately, it was the efforts I put into French over 2019 that made this choice a possibility.

And now?

I did take a break from my classes. I’m still reading some French books, occasionally peppering in a French series in the lineup, and doing Frantastique lessons. 

I hope what this breakdown shows is that languages take an effort. The accountability of regular lessons and being forced to speak – even when you’d rather not, even when you’re tired, even when you’re hungover, even when your friends are out doing friend things – is the most important step. But after that, there’s so much fun to be had. It’s really a Choose Your Own Adventure for learning. Music? Cooking videos? Books? TED Talks? Cartoons? 

As long as you don’t convince yourself that Duolingo is going to cut it, you’ll be great.

What’s wild is that yes, I spent 12 weeks away, and, yes, I took three straight weeks at a French course in Paris, but despite all that, it averages out to just 4 hours of class a week over a year. An effort, to be sure, but would you swap out a movie or two a week to become nearly fluent in that language you’ve always been interested in? Maybe not. 

But if you decide to, I applaud you, I encourage you, and I’m here if vous voudriez en parler.


france, letters from near and far

While the body works, the mind wanders

June 29, 2019 • By

It is 6am and we are in the vineyards, the sun a pastel orange smudge on the horizon and the reason we have been coming hours earlier than the previous week. The forecast for the afternoon says 37, and 40 for the day after (100-ish in Fahrenheit), and those are unpleasant temperatures for tending vines. To squeeze in the work, we start at dawn and plow forward. The day’s task has three stages, all with the goal of pulling the plants high-and-tight so there is room in each row for the tractors to come through, uproot the weeds, and leave the grape vines in relative peace so they can go on their merry grape-bearing ways.


While the body works, the mind wanders. The hot earth, the breeze through the fields, the water breaks, it’s all too reminiscent of teenaged summers in Sacramento. Breezes that broke the triple-digit temperatures during weeklong soccer camps and the nighttime practices, of never being quite clean during a cross-country camp because we had just run or or were going to barbecue or go run again or we had finished the day’s second run and it was time to sabotage the girls’ tent so really why get clean, of walking to my car after a practice at my junior high to find she’d left me a note and an orange ribbon and though things were still early they were exciting, of not letting the temperature or time of day decide when I could or would run (I suppose I haven’t changed much in 15 years, because I went for a run here one afternoon at 38 degrees before doing the maths and realizing that’s 100…).


It is 8am, and we have moved on to another grouping of vines, now Malbec. Today’s task has three parts. First, we lower the iron guide wires on either side of the plant, each in various stages of rusting or nearing completely rusted or so rusted that they break and need to be swapped out after thirty years of service, to the ground which then allows us to do the second step and adjust the wires to remove some slack and get on to the very satisfying third step which involves pulling the wires back up, clipping them together, and insuring the plants and all the various tendrils are gathered together for that cozy family photo and then we get to the end of the row and look back and it is clear and it feels good.

From chaos to order. Take that, messy bedrooms of my youth. Take that, entropy. Take that, universe.

Then we do it again. And again. They have 10 hectares, so there will be a couple of weeks of agains.


Occasionally, we chat in French. From my offering of stumps as gifts to Madame Dusite, to conferring on strategies to take on the gnats, it breaks up the morning. Then I study in the afternoon, take a mid-afternoon break to scheme for the summer’s end in Spanish, and slip back into butchering French for dinner with Yohann and Anne-Cecile. In between pouring them their own rosé and trying (and, perhaps, failing) to describe how television ratings work in America, it occurs to me I have, with varying levels of intentionality, disconnected from home.

As far as English goes, I have this letter… and regular visits to The Ringer because NBA free agency is upon us and of the two hats I brought to France, one is from a Northern California winery and the other is my Pride-themed Sacramento Kings hat, and not that I expect a big play in free agency for the team with the longest playoff drought in the league but one never knows (plus there are several insufferable Lakers fans in my life and I need the summer to effectively plan my retorts to their offseason lunacy).

And as far as home goes, I expected a certain amount of letting go, as I put my 916 number on hold. But then after a week here, I did the same for social media. More than anything else, it’s my own problem (What am I using it for? Why am I sharing? Who even cares? Why does it matter who cares?), as I am not unlike a horse who needs blinders to focus on the race. Unstructured Free Time, Languid Afternoons and Social Media combine for a tasty cocktail, but I think this summer is just for wine.

(And cheese.)


It is 10am, and all of the battles we are fighting here in the Loire Valley, the lovely, castle-infested, sweltering garden of France, could be solved with pesticides (and that we aren’t using them is more or less The Point of an organic farm, and I am learning that more through bug bites and blisters than didactic rants about the essence of the earth — mostly, they talk about the weather for the afternoon, with occasional jokes about Monsanto). That is to say, instead of holding my breath while walking through a cloud of gnats to keep them out of my nose, instead of blinking furiously to keep them out of my sensitive, city-slicker eyes, they could just be… gone.

Instead of our shared observing that around this time of day there seems to be an insect changing of the guards, as the aimless little ones subside and the big ones who bite (and bite hard!) take over the human-pestering shift, and instead of counting how many bites I get the second I take off my shirt, they could just be… gone.

Instead of all the work that goes into making it easier for the tractor to remove the weeds, those weeds, too, could just be… gone.

This is just to say that many of the things we categorically reject (be it Democrats, Republicans, the Twilight movies, or pesticides) have benefits and positives, and it is worth understanding why farmers might, after decades of bending over to pull weeds while fending off bitey, noisy, nasty bugs, consider something else. I don’t have an answer other than I’ve worked at two organic vineyards, am heading to an organic goat farm, and potentially another farm after that, so I hope to better understand at least this perspective.


It is noon, and we have put in enough work for the day, both in the sense of exaggerating our farmer’s tans and in tending to the vines. We have handled well over one and half hectares of the ten or so that they use to produce 45,000 bottles of wine a year, and it is with those numbers in mind I decide I have earned a third slice of bread at lunch.

We are in the van riding back together. I am in the back, with the spool of fresh iron wire, with the rusted connecting pieces, with the tools. We push up on the back vent, allowing in a breeze and a view of the hot air balloons surveying the vineyards. There’s talk about the weather (hot, still hot, perhaps less hot).

With a bump, we leave the gravel path and the vines for the day.


france, letters from near and far

A good morning in Rignac

June 20, 2019 • By

I didn’t get to run before breakfast.

When we agreed to a Sunday morning meal with Claude, the father of the host we’re staying with for a few weeks here in Rignac, we were warned about just how heavy this dejeuner would be, especially at 8 in the morning. So, the day before, I started planning a route I could run before breakfast to clear up precious stomach space. But as the sun sets late here, and the people go to bed even later, it’s ever harder to protect that time in the morning, and that proved true once again on Sunday. An extra half-hour of lazing about led to a knock on the door. We crammed into Claude’s car, and we went to the next town over.

The meal was as heavy as advertised: a tripe stew, sausages, cheese, cake, and several wines. It was, it turns out, part of a weekly rotating Sunday meal put on by various organizations in neighboring villages, all with populations of around 200 or 300 people, to raise money for the local schools. They’re attended primarily by, as is the custom, older men, who each check in on their friends of 50+ years with handshakes, laughs and nods, hair thin and hands calloused. There aren’t many women, except a few new moms, and a few matriarchs who spend the morning making the rounds. As the steam from the tripe stew opens my pores and too-much-wine too early helps me ask follow-up questions about Claude’s butcher shop, I notice the rain.

There’s nothing like running in the rain.


Tending the vines in Balsac

For the past week, I’ve been working on an organic vineyard in Balsac, while staying in Rignac in the Occitanie region of France. As I spend the morning plucking new growths to encourage each plant to focus its energy toward the grape-bearing vines, and as I perform an endless series of squats up the steep incline of the red clay-covered vineyards, a run begins to seem like a good idea to stretch out the legs. After sausage, wine and cheese at each of our meals, that same run begins to seem like a great idea.

But time is different here. The people sit longer, and stay longer. They were born here, and live here. They love the traditions older than they are, of sports and food and farming, and they honor them. Always, there is a cheese to taste, a dessert to try, and yesterday’s to finish. Plus, the keg from the party to inaugurate the wine cave still isn’t empty, so could you drink one more beer, please? With the work and the meals melting into a fondue of oozing time, no one rushes around during these late spring days.

After breakfast and enough wine to knock out Tyrion Lannister, I expected a midday nap and a run through the now-soggy fields and by the mopey cows.

But I didn’t run then, either.

Instead, we drove. Past the house we’re staying in, past the parent’s home and the 1-year-old Border Collie, and onward to vineyards and small towns and local claims-to-fame like the largest hand-carved wooden shoe… in the world? With occasional comments about the landscape, the towns, our host’s beginnings as a winemaker, we push through breezy curtains of constant drizzle in the opposite direction of our home and my running shoes, as that run begins to seem ever less likely.

Finally we get to a park, and we see our host in a very sporty uniform. It turns out they are in the middle of a tournament for quille, a sport which to my untrained American eyes seems a lot like dusty bowling. We had arrived during their lunch break. As another team was in the midst of talking to Claude, they invited me to eat cheese.

A light snack before sports

Still full of the cheese from that morning, I agreed. Soon, I found myself behind a van with a full-on picnic setup, a plastic plate full of Aveyron’s finest snacks in one hand, and a plastic cup filled with Aveyron’s finest wine in the other. Every attempt to be demure and to pass on food was forcefully ignored. No meant yes, a taste meant a slice, and a bit meant a plateful. Paté, cheese, flan, bread, and other desserts — all of this before they were set to continue playing. Spoiler: somehow they would go on to win.

As that team kept winning, along with my host’s team, I figured that meant a quiet night as everyone recovered.

A night, perhaps, for a run.

A brief break for sports before more snack.

So after the award ceremony and a late-dusk drive back with the sun streaking through the clouds, I figured the scene was set for my own victory run.

But still, I didn’t run.

The teams came over for beer and wine and pastis, a liqueur made from anise, and cheese. We all laughed and I somewhat mostly kind of understood what was going on in, to the extent I completed several French requests with aplomb (un coteau? Pour le pain ou le fromage?).

And I didn’t run.

But for a day that I felt had been defined by what I wasn’t able to do, a continuous thwarting of one seemingly simple desire to make a dent in the thousands of cheese calories I had piled on in just one week, it became so much more.

With the traditional Sunday meal surrounded by the elder dudes of the village, a road trip led by a father proud of his place in the world, witnessing his son’s triumph in a very traditional sport, being whisked away and welcomed by strangers eager to share their snacks, having the French president of quille teach us how to play, watching triumphant teammates swig from their trophy while eating the leftovers from parties past, the day was full of moments. It’s just that staying in the moment can be a struggle, especially as waves of the new crash over, leaving me craving the islands of comfort that I know. But as it always has been, running will be there, English will be there, and free time will be there.

Until then, there are new cheeses to be had.