15 years on, I still speak French with an accent
Young movers: ‘It was sink or swim!’ says Tom Rowe who arrived in France at age 13
Tom Rowe's City-worker father decided 15 years ago that he had had enough of the rat race and the family should move to France.
So they moved to a home near Sainte-Hermine, in Vendée, that Tom’s grandparents had bought when his mother was a child.
Tom, who now lives in La Rochelle, joked: “They have always summed it up as a midlife crisis without the crisis.
“It’s a beautiful area – a lot of English people are there. La Rochelle and Nantes are both nearby, so it’s practical for travelling to the UK.”
Tom, who was 13 at the time, said he had learned some “practical French” at school in the UK – “maybe I could ask Jérome for directions to the bakery, but I wouldn’t have understood his answer” – but he was “thrown into it” when the family moved.
“One of the cringiest memories was standing up in front of the whole school with my sister on our first day.
“The headmistress said ‘We have two English pupils with us this year’, and we had to introduce ourselves in French.
“From there, it was sink or swim. If you want to make friends and get on, you’ve got to learn the language.”
He said being relatively young made learning the language straightforward.
“I came over at 13. I was young enough to pick up the language without realising it.”
However, spending more than a decade in England has some disadvantages for learning French. “I still have a slight accent when I speak French, whereas my younger brother hasn’t. And I speak Spanish with a French accent.”
His younger brother had a different and unexpected language issue.
“We moved when he was four. It was only when he was 14 or 15 that he started to get really good at English. Until then, his spoken English was fine but his written... he would make mistakes and write phonetically.”
The school in rural Vendée was not used to foreign pupils, Tom said. “I didn’t have any extra lessons. We were something of a new concept to them – it was a real country school in the middle of nowhere and we were the first English people to go, so they weren’t entirely sure how to handle it.
“But my form tutor gave me a few grammar pointers over my first term. During English, I would go to the CDI and get to grips with French grammar. It was better than singing Yellow Submarine for the 50th time.”
Making friends did not happen overnight. “I was the outsider at first. I was definitely a newcomer to the scene, who didn’t speak the language. But I made some good friends. I didn’t immediately fit in with everyone but I wasn’t lonely. I had a good time.”
Even exams, when they came, held no nightmares, as Tom appreciated the system.
“The brevet was fine. The bac was a walk in the park.
“I thought the French education system was brilliant, it was a good, rounded education.
“I had the stress of the exams but I did OK and got a mention bien, which was good.”
University was a different matter. He says: “I flirted with university in Nantes for two years, but then left and went to work for Club Med.
“Then I did a TEFL course and started teaching English after that. Now I’m in sales and marketing for an international language school.
“I’ve worked all over France. I’d like to see a lot more of Europe - but I’ve really just had a chance to see a lot of France.”
Today, Tom considers himself more at home in France than England. “I don’t think my character is French as such, but I’m so integrated I don’t really notice the difference any more.
“My French comes fluidly and all my friends are French – it’s second nature.”
Even so, he has made some moves to future-proof his life in France in case of Brexit.
“I got my carte de séjour in January – just in case,” he said. “I’m hoping that’s going to be good enough.”
Going the whole hog and taking citizenship is not on the cards: “I never wanted to take French nationality because I’d never seen any point in doing so, and it takes about two years to do. It would be an administrative nightmare.”
This is the last of our series of profiles of young people who started at a school in France with little French but have now entered the working world. You can find earlier articles at our website (subscriber free access only).