Learning the French Language through WWOOFing : Oh La La !

International WWOOFes share their experiences of coming to WWOOF on French farms in hopes of practicing and improving their French language skills. Inversely, hosts recount anecdotes of teaching their mother tongue to their international WWOOFers and the deeply human échanges that ensue.

Odette, gardener in Montélimar

Odette’s approach on learning French « Open your eyes, your ears and your heart. My words of advice for those who seek to learn a language while WWOOFing. »

To really start to see an improvement, WWOOFers preferably need to stay a month or two and to be really present during that time. Join all the activities and conversations. You wont improve your french by staying in your bedroom! I taught some English and I used to tell my students that the worst place to learn a language is in the classroom! Several WWOOFers have started learning French during their time here and a few are inspired to continue and even go-on to become proficient.

« WWOOFing is about full immersion, linguistically as well as culturally. »

As for those WWOOFers who really improved their French…well, I’m remembering an American girl, Julie, who studied French in school. She came to stay for two months and after she went on to study French in University. Three years later she came back to visit. And then another! After these three stays, she was nearly fluent. This WWOOFer was always with me: cooking, hiking—totally present and aware of everything she could grasp and obtain. Her foreign language skills have now become so good that she coaches french athletes at a university in the US. Perfect professional French. Another young Turkish WWOOFer who knew little french when he came has gone on to work for the French Embassy in Istanbul, he got a grant to come study French in Amiens, and this year he got a job at the immigration services in Belgium thanks to his level of French.

« The most common vocabulary has to do with botany, the life of bees, the life of the garden, the life we share together…all these are very important. And food of course! »

One of Julie’s favorite French expressions learned here was On y va ! Let’s go! We were both so dynamic, always moving from one job to the next, that on y va ! was a key phrase. Another is vite fait, bien fait, quickly done, well done—very useful for work. When it comes to language differences, there is always the way of making one understand. It takes a little time…using your eyes, your smile, your hands; I even draw sometimes. There is never a complete blockage.

See Odette’s profile here

Asker, Danish WWOOFer in South France

Asker talks about the French politesse: « They are very social and really wanted to talk to me, to get to know me when I was WWOOFing, especially since I showed an interest in their language and culture. »

I wanted to study french in uni and I had two gap years to brush the dust off my french language skills. I went to a Danish travel agency to see about getting work in France and they recommended me doing WWOOFing. After working on the farm it would be a mental challenge sometimes to practice French but I would still make what effort I could. The family gave me a children’s book about the daily life that I would read every night before going to bed.. the words for plates, forks and things around the house. It actually helped! I also talked to the children; they were really bad at English which was to my benefit! I would point to something and they would say what it was in French. In free time, I would sometimes watch movies with the kids and they would put on subtitles in French.

« We have this stereotype in Denmark that French people are arrogant and they don’t want to talk to people who don’t speak their language. I found out that’s not the case at all. »

My hosts were very social, they often had dinner parties and would invite friends over; even though I didn’t know a lot of french, I would be like the fly on the wall and just listen to the French language and absorb and pick up worlds like le vin from working on the vineyard. or words for the tools like marteau for hammer when I was putting poles in the ground for the vines. My hosts also did speak English. Whenever I was confused and had a huge question mark on my face, they would switch to English so that I understood the work.

Sylvain, Vegetable Farmer in Sud Touraine

« My international WWOOFers learn language living in community with me, my workers, and each other, » says host Sylvain

I’m very bad in English. So if the WWOOFers are working with me it can be a little more complicated—a minimum of French is necessary! However, we always have workers and interns on the farm who speak English; thanks to them, we welcome anglophones without a problem. From Korea, Australia, South America—all over. When words fail, gestures go a long way. Like pointing or miming. Which can be humorous! The WWOOFers not only learn French by speaking to me and my team, but also among each other—other WWOOFers that is. Just by working on a farm in France, they learn words for « vegetables », the « harvest », « weeding » and also words for living in community like, Est-ce que tu veux un café? T’as pris ta douche? or On va manger ! One thing is sure, a few drinks at apéro in the evening make it easier for us to exchange in any language!

See Sylvain’s profile here

Julie, Farmer and agritourism in Gironde

Host Julie believes that learning French WWOOFing should be fun: « Our WWOOFers pick up local expressions and some evenings we do French karaoke. »

We speak some English and Spanish. But we try to speak as little as possible with our foreign WWOOFers so that they get a more genuine french experience; so that they can really practice their French. We even have evenings where we put on music and karaoke in french. Everyone usually has a good laugh!

« Those who pay attention will start to pick up on expressions and turns of phrases typical to the region. »

For example, we say “gavé” a lot. We put it with everything: c’est gavé bien, c’est gavé cool. It’s like « beaucoup » or « trop » in classic french that intensifies the noun or adjective. I.e. that’s too cool for c’est gavé cool). Je mange beaucoup becomes je mange gavé. At times when the language barrier is challenging, we explain slowly and we always encourage our WWOOFers to ask questions or communicate what they don’t understand. We’re pretty numerous here—4 farmers and then we take on a few WWOOFers at a time so it makes for a dynamic and convivial environment for our foreign WWOOFers to learn French in.

Visit the profile of La Ferme des filles

Westley, WWOOFed in a garden at Hérault

Westley believes « WWOOFing creates an environment where you hear and use French on a daily basis, whereas in my french classes in Hong Kong, it’s once a week. »

« I was going through a gardening phase. Also, I love France and wanted to improve the French that I had learned in school; that brought me to WWOOFing in France. The farm was in the South, about an hour outside Montpellier. There was a big garden we tended to plus animals.

« Other international WWOOFers were there as well. We all had the same goal of practicing French. »

Like when we biked to the city on our day off, we made challenges to speak French the whole day. We talked to locals passing by. To cashiers in stores. Back on the farm, our host spoke some English so it might be half french, half English with him, but the gardener however, he spoke no English. At times there were barriers; he would speak fast or mumble the words for plants like « haricots » and we didn’t know what that meant at the time. We would guess what he was saying and he would correct us but hey, that’s how we learned. You start to catch onto the phrases.

« Coucou was a funny word I would hear all the time and they later told me it’s a friendly and intimate but also light, fun way to greet someone. »

There are two expressions I would like to share, the first being « le pain complet » for the bread we used to pick up at the boulangerie and eat cheeses and stuff with. The second being, « n’importe quoi ! » which my hosts taught me can be used so many contexts, in so many ways. Oh, and « coucou »! From the text book, you learn « bonjour » but you never learn how to say hello in a more friendly and less formal way. Coucou was a funny word I would hear all the time and they later told me it’s a friendly and intimate but also light, fun way to greet someone. WWOOFing creates an environment where you hear and use French on a daily basis, whereas in my french classes in Hong Kong it’s once a week. The basics like « bonjour, ca-va? » start to catch on without you having to really think or recall anymore. Like this, the process in the classroom seems slow, but living and working with natives enriches your ability to learn. »

WWOOFing in France vocab

Here we’ve included a top ten list of words and phrases to get you started before working on an organic farm in France. En-profitez !

  1. Le potager – vegetable garden
  2. Laisse-moi te donner un coup de main ! – Let me give you a helping hand!
  3. Désherber – to weed
  4. Est-ce que tu veux un café ? – would you like a coffee?
  5. Biologique (bio) – organic
  6. Ah, la vache ! – holy cow! / wow!
  7. La terre – dirt, ground, earth
  8. La poulailler – the hen house
  9. Prendre l’apéro – to take an aperitif
  10. Se coucher avec les poules – to go to bed very early (literally: to go to bed with the the chickens)

Recipe for a Dish Eco-soap: a Sudsy Paste for Zero-waste

With minimal and natural ingredients, Castile soaps offer an alternative to the conventional suds of commercial cleaning products. An everyday, household item that’s used all year around, this zero-waste recipe comes just in time for all the washing-up of all those dishes for the holiday season!

To make the saponified, hard soap:

  • Olive oil 1,000 grams
  • Water 300 grams
  • Sodium hydroxide 154 grams

Caution: working with sodium hydroxide is highly caustic. Take the necessary precautions and protection when mixing sodium hydroxide (gloves, goggles, and working outside or in good ventilation)

Add the sodium hydroxide into the water. Let dissolve.

Now slowly add your solution to the oil while mixing together. Mix well (until thick n’ creamy).

Pour the soap solution into a mold and let harden over several days. This quantity makes a large batch to be stored and used over the course of the year as needed.

The large batch of of hard soap, with a chunk of 150 grams cut off to make the dish soap

Note: you can also skip this step if you already have a castile soap on hand and go straight to the next for liquefying.

After the saponification process, we can take a portion of the soap to make the liquid version.

All materials and ingredients needed for making your hard soap a liquid dish-soap

For the savon à vaisselle (dish soap) you will need:

  • water 850 grams
  • castile soap 150 grams
  • a pot or bowl for soaking
  • a blender or mixer
  • a few drops of essential oil (optional)
  • a recycled jar or bottle to put the finished product in

Break off 150 grams of hard soap, and cut up into little pieces or use a grater.

Put the water with the soap into a bowl and allow to sit over night.

The shredded soap pieces start to become a gooey substance after sitting in the water over night

After it has set, the soap is ready to be blended until smooth and poured into your recycled jar or bottle.

Et voilà ! The final product of the creamy eco-soap, blended with a few drops of lavender oil for fresh zest

Fun fact: the soap making tradition goes all the way back hundreds of years ago to a lil’ port town in the south of France, of which a traditional soap got its name hundreds of years ago…

Savon de Marseille, or Marseille soap, holds a longstanding practice and pride of how these soaps were master-crafted in the region for generations. What has now been adulterated by the commercial market with other non-traditional and questionable ingredients, the original savon de Marseille contained only four: oil, soda, salt, water.

We pay tribute to this French method by having done our own home-made and farm-made rendition of the classic recipe. We took it a bit further for soap that is not only liquid and dish friendly but also multi-purpose for the multi-surface.

Because after all, organic isn’t just what you put on your plate, but also what you clean those plates with afterwords, which inevitably gets absorbed by us and by the environment. Happy eco-cleaning!

Christiane, a German Biologist and WWOOFer « Doing Things Simply and with Meaning »

Executive in environmental protection in Germany, Christiane decided to discover France through her organic farms. During several months, she shared in the daily life of organic farms in the WWOOF France network to do “simple things with my hands that have meaning.”

Christiane takes a sabbatical from her work in the lab to work in the fields of France.

La Vache Kiri : Christiane’s blog on farm life in France

A play on the French cheese brand « La Vache Qui Rit » or « the laughing cow, » Christiane shares her experiences with other German-speaking readers, writing on topics ranging from her WWOOF stays, farm life, traveling in France, and cows of course !

Read Christiane’s blog

Unspoken Rules: the Do’s and Dont’s of WWOOFing

WWOOFers and WWOOF hosts share their advice on the ‘best practices’ of WWOOFing as well as some general guidelines that may not be so obvious to those unfamiliar with the culture. These rules are not written in stone, nor necessarily spoken outright, but are born of experiences working on organic farms.

Alice, a French WWOOFer in Montesquiou

This Lyon-native, having WWOOFed since 2016, talks about taking initiative, working autonomously, and adapting to rhythm

“Take initiatives. Have motivation to do things. Anything. Set the table, sweep the floor if you notice it’s dirty. Ask if there is anything more you can do. Don’t always wait to be told what to do every minute but try to be autonomous as much as you can. I’ve WWOOFed at farms where the hosts have so much work and the more you can pitch in without them having to stop and explain, well, it’s a huge help. At one farm in the south of France, it was very autonomous. I got up every morning to feed and care for the animals for example. But it’s different everywhere you go. On that note, I would say a good rule of thumb is to honor the rhythm of your host or better yet, know how to adapt yourself to and follow their rhythm. From beginning to end. At one host’s, we had “siesta” until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and would work after. But with the next host, that wasn’t the case because we ate much later. At every place, it’s a slightly different tempo: meal times, when to shower, work time, work pace, which days are free, and so on.”

Gilles et Christine, biodyanmic and organic wine cultivators in Savoie

Commitment is a commandment to respect between WWOOFers and farms, according to WWOOF host Gilles

« WWOOfing is first and foremost about discovery―not only for the WWOOFers but for us too! They bring us their culture, their knowledge, their eagerness. And we teach them how to cultivate and run a vineyard―everything from the grape harvest to the wine tastings with clients. Openness is at the heart of the philosophy of this exchange, and we love to have our WWOOFers taste local dishes, like escargots, and visit the region. Because we do take our roles as hosts seriously, we expect the same from our WWOOFers. A good rule to respect is that if you make a commitment with a host, keep it! We just have two spots for WWOOFers that in peek season, July and August, are booked; a few times we were stood up by those who had committed to coming and then last minute cancelled. For us, it complicates things for planning and becomes lost opportunities for more serious WWOOFers who want to come. Life happens. There may be an emergency, or you may get sick. But plan your stays with hosts in advance as best you can, and follow through on your word. »

See the profile of Domaine Partagé

Jodi-Lea and Jean-Paul, two Australians with experience WWOOFing in France and Japan

Two Australian farmers advise to take caution before working in the sacred gardens of French hosts

“One thing that stood out when WWOOFing in France is that every farmer’s garden is a sacred area that you don’t work in unadvised! Every host attended to their garden in a completely different fashion and what you think you know about gardening can be all wrong―and we come from a farm background in Australia! One Gardner might be bio-dynamic and go by the phases of the moon, another might go by some other system. We had ones with very straight rows and the farmer would rotate them, and then others that might be a circular permaculture garden. One time, there was this messy garden and we thought we were helping by weeding, but accidentally upset the farmer because he had his own time and system for for pulling weeds! In this case, as a permaculturalist, he left the weeds to act as « shade » for the seedlings, locking in moisture and keeping them from being dried out by the sun. Who knew? Not us! Our rule is: do not touch a French person’s garden for the first time unaccompanied!”

Leni: poet, gardner, and veteran host in Dordogne

Leni offers gentle words of wisdom to hosts and WWOOFers

« Being a WWOOF host goes back to this old fashioned idea of hospitality. That word has been stolen by the market for hotels, and business and such. However, here in the Périgord, most people still have a real sense of the traditional custom of hospitality which goes right back to the root of hospice, hostel, hospital―it’s about giving care to people who are away from their homes. And that has always been my attitude in welcoming WWOOFers here. As for the exchange between WWOOFers and hosts, I suppose you can say it’s a two way process. There should be no hierarchy like in a top-down system. To make a pun, it’s an organic process! When you go into someone’s home, it’s a very intimate sort of space. Whatever I have given to WWOOFers they have given me so much more back. I can’t say there is any one general rule. My word of advice would be: Be yourself, don’t hesitate to ask questions. Look around, just look around inside the farm, the house, look outside. Really take a deep breath of fresh air, and don’t necessarily come with preconceived ideas about what to expect. Really observe and don’t hesitate to join in and help. Don’t be shy. That is something I have to repeat a lot to WWOOFers because for a kind of security a lot of people bring their own images that they sort of transpose. You’ve made this big gesture to go WWOOFing so be confident in yourself. Look around with the eyes of a child. »

See the profile of Le Bourmier

Alyssa, an American who WWOOFed in Alsace, Bourgogne and Provence

« Participate as much as you can in the day to day life of your hosts while WWOOFing in France. For foreigners, it’s much more of a unique experience than conventional traveling, like staying in a hostel or in a hotel. Being welcomed in locals’ homes creates a warm and intimate setting―we were treated like family by the people we stayed with! Their sincere hospitality made me want to help my hosts in any way I could to show my deep appreciation. Dive into the work and the relationships with the people you meet without any hesitation, because by being present and engaged, you can open yourself up to life altering changes. In my case, WWOOFing in France has been the most monumental time from my traveling and living abroad; it truly changed my life and how I want to live my life. Working on the farms made me realize how obtainable it is have my own sustainable farm in the future, to grow my own food and have an self-sustaining lifestyle that aligns with my values. It was by talking and spending time with my hosts as much as possible and as they felt comfortable―while working and in my free time―that I learned about alternative lifestyles.”

Louis-Abel, vegetable farmer in Savoie

Simple house manners go a long way with hosts like Louis-Abel

« The ‘savoir-vivre’, or good manners, is important. At the same time, everyone is different, we all have our own personal values and beliefs, so you can’t ask the same thing of everyone. That being said, what I find favorable among WWOOFers are those who participate in many aspects of our daily life as a family, like wiping down the table after eating, or making a meal from time to time. There cannot be a general rule that applies to everyone, as every WWOOF experience is different. My advice to WWOOFers would be to communicate what they would like to learn; it’s not a job interview! But also good communication between WWOOFer and host is key. What is working? What is not working? It’s a dialogue. Another quality I personally appreciate with WWOOFers’ help is spontaneity and autonomy. Finding their own projects to do when they feel inspired or taking over a chore at the farm, like feeding the animals. There’s always something I have to be doing, in-between being a farmer and having a family, I’m always on the go!

See the profile of Les jardins de St Julien

Pia, a Lebanese WWOOFer living in Dubai

Pia discusses the nature of teaching and how her host, Kath, would leave sings all around the farm as a fun way to teach WWOOFers

« I had been romanticizing farm life for a few years and finally decided to try it out. I was a typical city girl in my youth, but now I find myself drawn to nature and it’s raw, abundant beauty. In July of this year, I volunteered for three weeks on a farm in Montendre, next to Bordeaux. The work was relatively easy. I learnt a little bit about permaculture, hand picked Colorado Potato Beetles and beans. I weeded some and helped Kath with the irrigation system. That would be my advice to hosts: be very clear about the work at hand, and have fun teaching. On the farm, Kath had messages placed in different spots about the permaculture way of life. It taught me the twelve design principles. For instance, one sign would say « Integrate rather than segregate, » the permaculture principle being that by putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other. That was new to me; and it made sense to me. »

Pancotto Pugliese: the Farmer’s Stew of South Italy

Literally translated as « cooked bread, » this dish has been nourishing farmers and families for generations. We share with our WWOOF community a traditional Italian recipe that can come from any garden, anywhere. With the chill of the autumn season upon us, it warms the heart as much as the belly.

« Back in the day, the tables were much smaller, and low to the ground. There were stools instead of chairs, and everyone would gather around one huge, heaping dish to eat, sharing the food one at a time. That’s how our parents, grandparents and great grandparents ate. First thing in the morning, about 5 am before starting the day’s work, then again at night when it was dark; after, they went straight to bed they were so tired. In those days you didn’t stop work for lunch. Up with the sun and to bed with the chickens, as we say! »

Michele, an Italian farmer and his wife, Maria, tell me about how it was to eat pancotto invernale ‘back in the day’ when their ancestors, also farmers, made heaping pots of warm stews to feed all the workers and the family. Today, they walk me through their garden to show me what seasonal vegetables are in this classic family recipe.

In fact, all the ingredients can come from the farm. For this dish, to feed 4 people we collected:

  • collard greens (one kilo)
  • chicory (one kilo)
  • arugula (one kilo)
  • catalogna, another type of chicory (one kilo)
  • fennel (2)
  • potatoes (1 kilo)
  • onions (3)
  • garlic (3 cloves)
  • your day old, hardened bread
All the ingredients to make pancotto pugliese

Next was the preparation. We cleaned the dirt off the leafy greens, peeled the potatoes and cut onions and chicory. Crushed the garlic in big chunks and set a huge pot of water to boil. Once the water is bubbling up, throw in the potatoes (diced in thick chunks) first, then after a few minutes, the onions, chicory and garlic. Once they have all started to soften, begin adding in your greens. Let everything simmer in the pot until tender and soft.

When the vegetables are cooked through, there’s the last part: toss in the pieces of bread, but leave them only for a moment! Just long enough to sop up a little of the juice and and steam from the stew.

Once all the vegetables are pronti or ready, the bread chunks are lightly dunked on top, before taking the pot off the stove

Now, the serving method. Scoop the bread pieces from the pot into the dishes. Then add your stew of veggies on top. Garnish with olive oil and peperoncino (for those who want a lil’ extra spice) and serve.

As we gather together, ready to eat, I look around the old farm house dinning room. The table may be a bit bigger now. The chairs a bit taller. But the pancotto pugliese is timeless: hearty and farm fresh. We invite you to try it for yourself―dig in! And be sure to pour yourself a glass of « medicina » or red wine for good health. Buon apetito!

Pancotto ready to eat!

Teindre avec la nature : le tuto éco du blog de Coralie

Graphiste nomade en WWOOFing, Coralie expérimente et vit au contact de la nature. Sur son blog Coraliesauvage.com, elle prend le temps de nous expliquer en détail et en images comment redonner des couleurs à un vêtement un peu trop blême. Une teinture pour faire « avec » et pas contre la nature.

 » Une fois encore, la teinture naturelle m’éblouit. Grâce à quelques pelures d’oignons jaunes et un mordançage à l’alun, cette blouse renaît dans une couleur solaire et chatoyante. »

Visiter le blog de Coralie

« Qui c’est qui passe l’éponge ? », les basiques de la vie collective

Faire du WWOOFing, c’est aussi partager la vie d’une personne ou d’une famille. Pour démarrer sur de bonnes bases, une petite révision des basiques de la vie collective rafraîchit toujours la mémoire. C’est ce que conseille Jean-Jacques Fasquel, grand habitué du WWOOFing qui partage ses expériences dans ses « Carnets de WWOOFing ».

« Soyez proactif pour mettre la table ou la débarrasser, proposez de cuisiner votre spécialité, d’étendre la lessive ou encore de passer un coup de balai dans la salle à manger, comme le ferait un autre membre de la famille. »

Les us et coutumes, les règles de savoir-vivre

« Vous allez débarquer dans l’intimité d’une famille. Même si cette dernière accepte, en conscience, de vous accueillir et de partager son quotidien avec vous, soyez respectueux des règles de vie de vos hôtes et ayez du savoir-vivre.

Pour ce qui est des tâches domestiques quotidiennes, participez sans attendre que l’on vous sollicite. Soyez proactif pour mettre la table ou la débarrasser, proposez de cuisiner votre spécialité, d’étendre la lessive ou encore de passer un coup de balai dans la salle à manger, comme le ferait un autre membre de la famille.

Pour les travaux de la ferme, mettez-vous dans une position d’apprenant humble, positif, volontaire et curieux. Vous n’avez pas bien compris une consigne ou appréhendé un geste ? Demandez à votre hôte de réexpliquer sa demande pour éviter de vous mettre dans une position inconfortable ne sachant pas exactement comment procéder, au risque de faire une bêtise. Les erreurs font partie de l’apprentissage et seront tolérées, mais autant les réduire au maximum. Votre hôte vous confie sans a priori son outil de production, la caisse de son étal au marché ou encore les clés de sa maison… Alors soyez à la hauteur de sa confiance.

Montrez-vous ouvert ! Vous venez découvrir une autre façon de produire et de vivre la société. Toutefois, cela n’empêche en rien de questionner votre hôte sur sa pratique ou des faire des propositions. Les étonnements du « candide » sont une vraie richesse pour les paysans qui ont souvent le nez dans le guidon et n’ont pas toujours le loisir de prendre du recul. Si vous avez des compétences spécifiques dont vous leur avez parlé, comptez sur eux pour vous demander de les mettre en oeuvre. Ainsi, Anne, une WWOOFeuse, a dessiné l’étiquette du premier millésime du vin du vignoble Celler La Gutina, en Espagne. Dix ans plus tard, cette étiquette est toujours utilisée !

Assez souvent, une complicité, voire une amitié, va naître. Suite à mes séjours, j’ai accueilli plusieurs de mes hôtes à mon domicile et j’ai gardé contact par mail avec d’autres. »

Extrait tiré du livre Carnets de WWOOFing, de Jean-Jacques Fasquel, éditions Terre vivante

96 pages – 10 € – coll. Champs d’action – éd. Terre vivante

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