Bonne journée internationale de la femme!
As we are celebrating the International Women’s Day, I would like to share with you the stories of fascinating women who had to learn French to pursue their dreams and destiny.
The first which comes to my mind is Romy Schneider, one of my favourite actresses. If you have been to Vienna, Austria, before, you must have heard about Elisabeth or Sissi, the famous Empress of Austria. In the German and French-speaking worlds, Elisabeth’s name is often associated with a trilogy of romantic films (1955-1957) about her life, which starred the teenage Romy Schneider. The movie Forever My Love was a condensed version of the three films, dubbed in English, and released in North America in 1962.
Did you know that Romy spoke excellent French? Here is an interview with the RTS (Radio Télévision Suisse) from 1962 where she explains how she often struggled with the language and how, despite the many hurdles along the way, she always kept going. That really paid off in the end as she starred in major French movies and played alongside other famous French actors.
The women I chose for you today had to face adversity, disapproval, and numerous hurdles along they way. Nevertheless, they stood up for themselves and kept going. Yesss!!!
Learning French was not always easy, but it definitely empowered these incredible women.
Here are 5 great women who speak french:
Marie-Antoinette (1774-1791) was called l’Autrichienne (The Austrian Woman) even before she set foot on French soil, a few months short of her fifteenth birthday. Austria was indeed a hereditary enemy of France, a rival in the struggle for European and world dominance. That name was always meant as an insult, or at least as extremely hostile.
In Vienna, Marie-Antoinette, upon her engagement, had been given in haste a proper French instructor, a priest by the name of Abbé de Vermond. The Abbé followed her to Versailles and continued his lessons there for years.
Marie-Antoinette learned to speak her new language fluently and soon spoke French without any German accent.
2. Marie Sklodowska Curie
Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867–1934) was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity.
In late 1891, at age 24, she left occupied Poland for France. In Paris, Maria (or Marie, as she would be known in France) studied physics, chemistry, and mathematics. She earned two degrees from the Université de Paris, where she met Pierre Curie.
Marie did not accept Pierre’s first marriage proposal as she was still planning to go back to her native country. Pierre was however ready to move with her to Poland, even if it meant being reduced to teaching French! Marie did return to Warsaw to visit her family, but was denied a place at Kraków University because she was a woman. A letter from Pierre convinced her to return to Paris to pursue a Ph.D, which she did. The rest is history!
Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, and was part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and in 1995 became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris.
While a French citizen and able to speak the language fluently, Marie Skłodowska Curie (she used both surnames) never lost her sense of Polish identity. She taught her daughters the Polish language and took them on visits to Poland. She named the first chemical element that she discovered—polonium, which she isolated in 1898—after her native country.
3. Kim Thúy
Kim Thúy (1968 – ) is a Vietnamese-born Canadian writer. At the age of 10, she left Vietnam with her parents and 2 brothers, fleeing the country’s communist regime. After a stay in a refugee camp in Malaysia, the family, like many refugees who then qualified as “boat people”, arrived in Granby, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Their adaptations to the climate, French language and culture of their new home, though difficult at times, were eased by the warmth of their neighbours’ welcome.
After trying various occupations – farm worker, seamstress, cashier, cook – Kim Thuy pursued studies at the Université de Montréal where she completed degrees in linguistics and translation, then in law. At the same time, she opened a restaurant in Montréal to introduce the city to the cuisine of her native country. When the restaurant closed Thuy began to write, fulfilling a long-held ambition.
Thuy’s first novel, Ru (2009), fictionalizes her family’s long journey from Vietnam to Québec and their discovery of their new environment. Writing in a frank and simple manner, the author presents short, moving accounts that trace her family’s small adaptive gestures to their new daily reality, and their longing for the country they left behind.
Critics have praised Ru (which means “lullaby” in Vietnamese) since its release, and it has been published in several languages. In March 2010, Kim Thuy won the highly-coveted Grand Prix RTL-Lire at the Salon du livre in Paris, and in November 2010, the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award.
Watch Kim talk about her path from refugee to star writer.
4. Serena Williams
Famous American tennis player Serena Williams has found something more nerve-racking than winning tennis matches at Roland Garros: speaking French afterwards!
The world No. 1 has been talking French during her on-court interviews after her five French Open wins.
Serena wanted to start speaking French in post-match interviews in 2012, but lost in the first round and never had the opportunity.
In the following years, winning hasn’t been a problem and so, she had plenty of practice to improve her speaking skills! She’s been speaking French for years, but said she lacked the confidence to speak it at the tournament.
“It’s way, way more nerve-racking than playing tennis,” she told reporters!
Serena has reasons to learn the language besides self-improvement and fan-pandering. She owns an apartment off the Champ-de-Mars in Paris and has been working with a French coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, for many years.
Watch Serena speak about tennis in French during an interview on French TV.
5. Louisa Goeman Deblonde
Another strong lady who had to learn French to better adapt to her life was my maternal grandmother, Louisa Goeman Deblonde. Born in Wetteren, Flanders, Belgium, she spoke Flemish (Belgian Dutch) at home and had to learn French during WWII. She went to a French speaking school and had to learn all her grammar rules by heart! Later on, she taught young ladies how to sew, cook, and balance a family budget, but also how to speak French. (Does this remind you of anyone else?!!). She stopped when she got married to my grandfather, Henri-André Deblonde who, despite his name and efforts throughout the years, never spoke French as well as my grandmother.
My grandparents were farmers and had eight children. They shared a reasonably large plot of farmland with another family who had nine children. It was my grandfather’s dream to move to Canada, where the land was promised to be vast and fertile. What an adventure it must have been for the whole family to fly to Montreal in 1972!
La Ferme Flandria was a 100 cows dairy farm in the 8 years which followed their arrival in La Présentation, a village located close to my hometown, Saint-Hyacinthe. Thanks to the expertise of my grandfather and uncles, Joseph and Michel Deblonde, and of course, Louisa’s never-ending positive energy, it is now one of the biggest farmland of the region. Despite many hurdles on the way to success, never, ever did she give up. She was always the first to cheer everyone up with her hilarious Flemish jokes (which she translated in French for us)!
At 87, she still speaks a bit of German and some very good English! Louisa definitely passed on her strength of character and positivity to my mother who became a family doctor and a mother of four energetic ladies! Superwomen all the way!
De tout coeur, merci, chère Mémé Louisa!
Cheers to all the ladies & gentlemen who speak French and encourage us to become better, stronger individuals everyday!
I hope you are even more inspired to integrate French in your everyday life.
As a native Québécoise, born to a Franco-Belgian family, now living in Nyon with her two children, Isabelle is no stranger to the expat reality! Trained as a professional opera singer, her passion for arts and languages led her to become an ambassador of the French language & francophone culture, i.e. a French Teacher!
She founded Prêt à Parler in January 2015. Since then she's been hard at work helping native and non-native English-speaking expats make French part of their everyday life! Prêt à Parler's mission is based on what Isabelle does best: helping busy professionals and parents improve their language skills by providing a high quality, eco-friendly, fun, no-nonsense approach to learning French online!