Friday, June 15, 2012

Un Rosbif écrire

There are many skills I regret not having: the ability to sing or play a musical instrument was one I felt especially keenly when I was a teenager and dreamed of rock stardom. Then there are other skills I regret not pursuing with greater enthusiasm or dedication, at the top of which is my utter inability to speak any foreign language. Like most British folk I learned French and German at school. Like most British folk I dropped those subjects at the first opportunity. Then, like most British folk, I went to France and Germany on business and/or pleasure and felt an utter buffoon for not being able to say a single word to the locals beyond 'hello', 'please' and 'thanks'. Even that was a struggle. I remember once failing to say 'Merci' for a cup of coffee at a French service station, instead making a strange, cow-like noise that baffled everyone.

Well, I've decided to stop whingeing and finally do something about it. A fortnight today I am attending  this rather exciting festival in the South of France. I'm looking forward to it immensely. However, I only accepted the invitation once it was understood that my French was abysmal. I felt ashamed having to make that declaration, but I was assured that I would have a translator with me for any panels or discussions. But it was the final straw, or, as the French might say, c'est la fin des petits pois.

Stung by having to admit that I couldn't even speak schoolboy French - pre-school French would be more accurate, if a pre-schooler also knew to ask for a light for a cigarette and a glass of beer - I bought Michel Thomas' French course. For those of you who don't know him, Thomas was a Holocaust survivor, who then went on to pioneer a method of teaching foreign languages that have become known around the world. They work, or at least the French one does, on the basis that half the words in the English language are French anyway, and builds on them. There is no memorising, no writing and no revising - just listening, saying and, hopefully, absorbing.

I have to admit to being pretty sceptical when the CDs arrived. But lo and behold, I popped the first one in and the next hour or so flew by. I don't how much absorbing I did, but the startling thing was just how much I enjoyed it. Of course, life itself is a lesson and we learn something new every day blah blah blah, but I had completely forgotten the sheer joy that comes through learning. The tapes are designed to give you a sense of progression, and even feature two other students being taught by Michel, who are guaranteed to be even more stupid than you and make you feel dead clever. I had also completely forgotten the exhilaration of feeling of superior to a couple of thickies. It didn't last. By tape three they've caught me up. I've even developed an irrational hatred for the smarmy male student - oh look at ME with my gallic accent and pats on the back from Michel - and a vague crush on the female. Indeed, it it is just like being in school again, though minus the acne and anxiety.

I have no idea of what use this will be to me in Frontignan. It may be that when I'm put in front of a real-life French person I crumble and end up with my strange cow sounds. Though I doubt it. While I'll still need my translator to help me discuss the intricacies of crime fiction with my fellow writers and readers, I'm confident I'll be able to navigate most of my other transactions without having to a) wave my hands and TALK LOUDLY in English with a pointless, offensive French accent or b) mumble something about 'J'ai parle un petit peu de Francais' and turn crimson red.

But we shall see.

A votre sante.

Dan - Vendredi


  1. The people in the US are no better. One of my daughters had to have a certain level of proficiency in a foreign language to fulfill a graduation requirement in college. She took a placement test before she started school and, unfortunately, met the requirement. Worst thing to happen. She didn't have to take Spanish so she forgot everything she learned.

    In the US, where the majority are rapidly becoming a minority, the inability to speak Spanish is becoming a handicap in the job market. When I was in school, the attitude was that English was the language everyone needed to know so there was no need for we lucky people to have to learn the language of a less important culture. Education was determined by a group of short-sighted fools.

  2. Dan--

    An alternative strategy.

    Have your translator tell the audience that unfortunately you know only one word of French. Fortunately, it's the most important word in the French language.

    At which point you say, "Noir."

    Then, whatever the first question is that you're asked, you say, "Noir," and stop.

    After the second question, you say, "Noir." And stop.

    This should get a laugh, and get the audience on your side--and make them grateful your translator will be supplying real answers for the rest of the session.

    If, however, this fails to get a laugh, immediately tell them this is all the fault of an American who advised you to open with the Noir joke. And he also advised you that if the joke bombed, to blame him, because no matter what the topic, you can't go wrong with a French audience by blaming it on America.

    If that is also met with stony silence, run, because they're about to start booing and throwing things.


  3. I'm right there with you, Beth. I was young when French and German were the languages of science, so we studied them. Then in my adulthood, I moved to California. Not speaking Spanish was a factor in my getting a job. Although I've picked up a lot, but fluency would still help me. And my French deserted me in France as well. The locals just spoke too fast for my college French.

  4. We have friends who were born in Syria as was their daughter. They were educated by French priests and nuns and they were fluent in English. When their daughter was twelve, a son was born. From the minute he was born, his mother spoke to him in Arabic, his father spoke French and his sister used English. He was multilingual before he could talk.

    When he was about 18 months old, he was at my house and started to explore under the kitchen sink. His mother used English when she was with the language challenged, so when she told him no to touch anything he gave her a big grin and pretended he didn't understand her. Mama never spoke English when they had these exchanges so he took advantage of her mistake. She repeated the order two or three times and he continued to pretend he'd never heard English.Then his mother switched to Arabic. He stepped away and the grin disappeared. Party over. Mama meant business now.

    When the daughter went to high school, she wanted to take French as her foreign language. Her mother and father disagreed and she studied Spanish instead.

  5. It is tough being linguistically challenged, especially when one lives in a foreign country (England--even the US southwest--would qualify for me). I survive on the benevolence of strangers and a girlfriend fluent in strange tongues. My only advice is smile a lot.

    Bon chance.

  6. Beth - I think the attitude that we speak English and so does everyone else has defined the teaching of languages here since time immemorial. It's changing now. Primary schools now teach french, which is a start. But we have a long way to go. I visit Sweden regularly for work. Everyone speaks perfect English. I know Swedish is a difficult language, and hardly widely spoken, but the difference is embarrassing.

    I once tried to learn Spanish, because someone once said it's the easiest language to learn the and the closest to English. They were wrong about the easy bit. The MIchel Thomas method is so good though I may well have another bash

    Lenny, I'll try this. Though I'd probably mispronounce 'noir.' It reminds me - this Tuesday I'm appearing at a festival in the UK at the same time as the England football team plays a match in Euro 2012. I might have to dust off the old gag about having done a one-man show that went so well that I'm going to do it in front of two men next time...

    Jeff- you have my admiration for even trying (and for snaring a multi-lingual partner). It's all Greek to me...

  7. Bonjour Dan Have a great time in Frontignan and I'm sure you'll parler tres bien. If a word escapes you just shrug, expel air from your mouth and raise your eyebrows in that Gallic way. I mimed that at the market over the onions since I couldn't explain that I wanted only a quarter kilo not four the end he gave me a kilo now I must make French onion soup. Have a great time if you come thru Paris let me know Cara