The French long lunch: a language learner’s perspective

There is no relaxing Sunday lunch in France when you are learning French.

France’s lunches are celebrated for the way people take their time to enjoy multiple courses of food accompanied by good wine and good conversation.

But for a person still trying to master the language, every meal concludes with the mental exhaustion of sitting an exam.

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A lively lunch table often has multiple conversations happening at a time. People talk to the person next to them, opposite them or talk loudly with someone down the other end of the table.

In a language you are fluent in you can often find yourself participating in one discussion while having an ear in on another, jumping from conversation to conversation. But for a learner there is capacity for one conversation and one conversation alone.

All your concentration goes to the one speaker. You absorb the words you know, roughly picking up the subject at hand. Another person gives their view and you’re confident you understand what is being discussed.

Down the other end of the table you catch some words you understand.

Your attention wavers.

You try to get back on top of the original conversation only to realise the topic has changed and you no longer know what people are talking about.

You focus even harder on the single conversation, trying to prevent any further distractions.

Suddenly you realise you understand the topic again and not only that – you have something to add to it!

Your concentration is now divided again. Half your concentration is in your head, finding the right words and the correct conjugations to express yourself.

The other half is on the conversation hoping desperately the topic doesn’t change before you have formulated your sentence.

Which inevitably it does.

There are rare occasions the topic is still being discussed by the time you have a sentence prepared and you find a suitable conversation break to share your thoughts.

All eyes turn to you as a sentence slowly stumbles out of your mouth.

A sentence that made much more sense in your head.

There’s a vague understanding among conversation participants. Some will rephrase what you said into correct language.

You feel like such an idiot because you were completely off the mark and it’s probably sheer luck someone actually understood.

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You take a sip of your wine in your awkwardness.

The glass is almost empty. Everyone else’s glass is still nearly full.

All this time they were occupied with talking and have been too busy to sip their wine.

But you haven’t been talking.

And what’s more, you have been holding on to your glass as a crutch, subconsciously taking a sip each time you felt uncomfortable – most of the past half an hour.

You guess it’s not so bad. Your French flows more freely with a bit of liquid help.

Your glass gets a top up and you now add focusing on your alcohol consumption to the list of thinks you are concentrating on.

Main course has only just been served. If you have too many glasses of wine you’ll look bad in front of your hosts and perpetuate cultural stereotypes about Australians.

Your plate empties faster than everyone else’s.

With your mouth not engaged in conversation you have been eating faster than your companions.

You find your helpful host filling your empty plate with a second helping and you consider cultural stereotypes about French women not getting fat.

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During the cheese course everyone laughs. Except you.

Someone notices your blank face and suggests everyone could all speak at a slower pace so you can follow the conversation.

The joke is repeated slowly.

You still don’t laugh because you understood everything except the punchline.

By dessert you have retreated into your own thoughts.

You’re snapped out or your daydream by someone asking you a question but have no idea what they asked because you weren’t paying attention.

They assume you just didn’t understand.

Someone repeats the question in English.

It was a simple question you would have understood in French if you weren’t off with the fairies.

You return to focus on the conversation in case someone tries to bring you in again but it’s all just a sea of words by this stage.

Coffee is a relief. The caffeine boost will stimulate your brain which is fatigued from the intense concentration of the past two and a half hours.

As people start to leave the table your find a convenient moment to rise and find the nearest couch for a nap.

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