Doing These Online Language Classes Is the Best Thing I’ve Done During Quarantine
A few times in my travels through France, I’ve been mistaken for a French person, and the amount of pride I felt in those moments is comic. Once at Charles de Gaulle Airport, a gate agent gestured to the French citizen’s line with a nod. “Right this way, madame,” she said en français. I looked around at the empty hallway and realized she was speaking to me. She had mistook me for one of the chic Parisian women I’d seen throughout the city, radiating that proverbial je ne sais quoi. Perhaps my ballet flats, scarf, and ponytail had a bit of Marion Cotillard about them. I beamed. And yet when I opened my mouth, the spell was broken.
“Uh, non, uh. Je suis, um, American.”
It’s not that I wanted to be French exactly. I just wanted to be the type of American who could pass for français and wow a gate agent with my fantastic fluency. A citizen of the world who could perfectly trill through the pronunciation of “fabuleuse” or order a croissant with confidence or say to a gate agent, “Thank you for your assistance, but I’m American and must join the line for foreigners” as they replied in astonishment, “Madame, your French is merveilleuse!”
I have tried a few times to level up my French and attain this elusive goal. Like many, my first attempt was in high school. I joined Monsieur Beeckman’s 101 class with hours of chalkboard drills and grammar exercises. It was effective, but it drained all the romance and the fun from the language. Post high school and college, I just dabbled, watching a Quebecois movie here or doing a free language app there. This was enough to remind me of a few choice vocab words, but it never brought me much closer to fluency, or even croissant-ordering. Part of the issue was time. I only used my commute to practice, which added up to less than two hours a day when I bothered. The other issue was simply the depth of the lessons—you can only get so far in an app where every option is multiple choice. As one friend told me, “It’s so easy to cheat your way up another level because I’m just a good test-tasker and I can guess at the right answer. But it doesn’t get me any closer to being able to speak the language.”
Everything changed with our new shelter-in-place orders for Covid-19. Suddenly, time wasn’t an issue. I was desperate for a new hobby to give my long shapeless hours at home a sense of purpose and fun. And my wanderlust was dialed up to 11. I was watching YouTube videos, listening to audio tours, and watching travel-themed TV shows, which helped. But I wanted to do something active, not passive, to feel like the world traveler I once was.
Now that I had the time and the energy to devote to it, I made another big decision. No more free apps. I wasn’t commuting anymore, so I could stand to do a lesson on my computer. At the same time, I didn’t exactly have $300 sitting around for classes at my local language school via video. I went the far, far more affordable route—online classes with Babbel. These cost less than a tenth of my local classes, and the quality was several notches above what I’d been doing on my free app.
I started out in the Beginner level, and I found it challenging in the best way. I couldn’t cheat my way through multiple choice. Instead, I was testing my pronunciation via my mic or spelling out phrases, and full conversations would unfold showing you typical exchanges for directions, shopping, and navigating life in general. A little “help” button was always on hand if I lost my way or couldn’t remember the proper spelling for, say, “ticket office.” At the end of every lesson, I’d have the chance to revisit any mistakes I’d made. And with every success, I’d get a happy “Fantastique, Maria Hart!” cheering me on.
I didn’t realize just how much I needed all of this—the structure, the accomplishment, the positivity. These were all things that were in low supply during my stay-at-home days, where each day was the same shapeless thing, whether it was a Merberday or Fegurday. (I started to invent my own days of the week about a month in.) My Babbel French classes were the opposite of this; they weren’t just a place to put my mind, but a way to wake it up and engage it in a way that only travel once did.
I wish I could say that by the end of quarantine, I’ll be fluent and chattering away in French. That’s not likely, given that I’m still working my way through the beginner’s lessons. But let’s just say that I’ll be really, really good at ordering that croissant in French when the time comes, and it will taste all the better for it.
What It Costs
Our writer’s membership was arranged through Babbel. Classes typically start at $12.95 for one month, but Babbel has extended a 50% off offer to readers of What to Pack for three- six- or 12-month memberships, bringing the monthly costs as low as $5.19 a month.
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