When my wife and I moved to France, my ability to speak French was essentially nonexistent. I knew how to say “my name is…” (je m’appelle), “I am sorry” (je suis désolé), and the names of random zoo animals (tigre, singe, et tatou). I had studied a bit about conjugating verbs, but was still learning present tense. Turns out present tense is not be terribly helpful in day to day conversation. You can read my post about that here. Our first day in France some friends taught us the invaluable phrase “je voudrais…” (I would like).
So armed, the next day I braved going to one of our local boulangeries (bakery). When it came time to order, I said “bonjour, je voudrais” and pointed to the millefeuille I wanted. Thus began my journey of learning French in my favorite context, the boulangerie.
The boulangerie is a great place to learn French for a few reasons. First, it is a known context; people come to the boulangerie to buy bread and pastries. I have an idea of what words to listen for and can guess missed words based on this setting. Over time I learned the phrase “say too” was really “c’est tout?” (anything else?). There is also a logical flow to the conversation: greeting, ordering, being asked if I want anything else (c’est tout?), the price, and the goodbye.
This brings me to my next reason: greetings and goodbyes. Every exchange begins and ends with a greeting and a goodbye, and this is good practice for using terms like “bonjour” (hello), “bonne journée” (have a good day), “vous aussi” (polite way of saying ‘you too’) and “au revoir” (goodbye).
The boulangerie also provides practice with the ever difficult gendered words of French. Whenever ordering something, I was forced to wrestle with the question “is it ‘un baguette’ or ‘une baguette’?” (it’s une baguette in case you’re wondering) My solution, at least at first, was to order “deux (two) baguettes s’il vous plait.” As I became braver, I started guessing (I am also always wrong). I once ordered “un etoile de Grenoble” and heard the boulangère (baker) reply “une etoile” and learned etoile is feminine.
If you know anything about French numbers, you know they are quite difficult. There is no word for 70, 80, or 90 in France. Belgium and Switzerland have both remedied this deficit, but France refuses to. Instead of saying seventy, it’s “soixante dix” (sixty-ten), and seventy two is “soixant douze” (sixty-twelve). Eighty is “quatre-vingt” (four-twenty), and ninety-nine is “quatre-vingt dix-neuf” (four-twenty-nineteen). It is a confusing system, but the boulangerie gives opportunity to listen for numbers while using the price on the register to verify your answer (‘I think she said ‘trois soixant-dix’/3.70’).
One of the greatest moments occurred when I understood a joke in French (fast enough to laugh with the boulangères and not on the walk home). My order totaled 4.20 so the boulangère said “quatre vingt” to which her coworker replied “quatre-vingt?!” (80?!).
The boulangerie also offers insight into various holidays and cultural items. Starting in January they sell “galette des rois” (king cake) for Epiphany, “bugnes” (glorious French donuts) for Mardi gras, chocolate fish for Easter, and “buche de Noël” which is a special Christmas boulangerie cake in December. It is a fun window in French culture to see what special pastries are sold during the year, and you know what holidays are coming up based upon what is for sale at the boulangerie.
For these reasons, as well as my many fun, though sometimes embarrassing, memories of going to the boulangerie, I think the boulangerie is the best French classroom. The best part of course is the bread and pastries.