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Live Life in Creuse

Allo, allo - learning French in ten easy stages
by Annik • Thu 12 Jul 2007 05:11
There's no magic short cut to making yourself understood, in the end you have to take a deep breath and plunge into the linguistic quagmire

My mother - a fluent French speaker - tried to teach me a smattering of the language when I was a small child. Unfortunately she only instructed me in nouns and colloquialisms. So when I went to High School I found out that knowing le tapis (carpet), les rideaux (curtains), ferme ta gueule (shut your gob) and il tombe de la flotte (it's pouring with rain) wasn't much help. My dad's offering of tout de suite and the tooter the sweeter was equally useless.

Mrs Thomas, our French teacher, eventually knocked some formal French into me and, like my future husband Ed, I attained Grade 5 at GCE 'O'Level - one grade above a pass. Unfortunately in those days no one taught you how to talk to people, though years later we could still conjugate some verbs parrot-fashion and knew our sedillas from our circumflexes.

Ed and I had a pact that in France he would do the driving and I would do the talking. I was petrified that I might kill someone if I did something foolish at the wheel, while asking for the wrong thing in the boulangerie wouldn't have fatal consequences (though I suppose it might have done in the pharmacie). I was still, however, terrified of opening my mouth and putting my foot in it.

When I first tried out my rusty French during our holidays in the 1980s, I used to wave my arms around a lot in the hope that if I could sketch in the air a vague picture of what I was talking about, I might be better understood. I also did it because I thought it looked a bit Gallic. Our young sons would edge away and pretend I wasn't with them.

I had French cousins who kept in regular contact and 20 years ago Ed and I helped to start a twinning between our village in England and a town near Lyon, so there was always some French in the background. We split our annual holidays between staying with French friends and visiting a new region, to see which part of France we liked best. We had a dream of buying a house but never thought it would come to anything.

Because few people involved with the twinning could speak much English, we had to speak French and we found to our great pleasure that we could all communicate and have quite complicated conversations with the aid of a dictionary, a lot of goodwill and a generous fuelling of alcohol. We all knew how hard it was to master the others' language and so we all made big allowances and glorious leaps of imagination in order to understand one another. It was fun and not terrifying any more.

We bought a French translation programme so that I could write proper letters to my cousins and our 'twins' on the computer. I was chuffed with my first four-page offering which I sent to a very good French friend who was an English teacher. She sent it back covered in corrections in red biro, which was utterly mortifying. She must have restrained herself from writing "2/10, see me!" at the end. The more I used the programme the more I realised that you just couldn't cheat like this. There was no substitute for knowing what you were doing.

We attempted to go to French classes at the local College of FE in England, but it wasn't the same as our informal experiences with our French friends. The teacher was ill and we had a different locum each week before the course finished in disarray after five weeks.

Then we were asked to join the local French Circle. We thought it would be entertaining but were horrified to discover (a) the other members were all teachers of French and most had studied at the Sorbonne, and (b) members were expected to give a five-minute speech on a given subject at each of the fortnightly meetings. It took us hours to do our 'homework' - hours that we couldn't spare - and we knew our mangled offerings were laughable. After about a year we made our excuses and left.

When we bought our house in 1994, we were quite determined to hold our own in French, as there was absolutely no reason why anyone in the Creuse should speak English to us. We were reasonably confident that the pidgin-French that carried us through our twinning exchanges would stand us in good stead at St Paradis. We can think and dream in our version of French, but we had not reckoned with patois. We soon found that we could have a sensible conversation with the bank manager and the mayor but not with our elderly neighbours. We felt like French people trying to understand Glaswegian.

We still have awful problems after 13 years. We have deep, close friendships with the neighbours in our tiny hamlet, who are enormously kind and very dear to us, but these transcend verbal language, instead relying on body language, hugs, laughs and kisses. Especially hard going is a wonderful old man who speaks patois with a stammer. Not even the Parisians, or a neighbour from Britanny, can understand him.

Now we are having French lessons again. Originally they were subsidised by the Communauté des Communes but they changed their criteria for eligibility and now we pay to go privately. And the sad thing is that while once I thought my French was quite good, I now get knocked back by the realisation of my elementary grammatical mistakes. I've got a good vocabulary of long words but it's the little ones that let me down. Every time I think I've worked out a rule, an exception comes along.

There's also the problem of middle-aged memory. Deep in the brain cells lies five years' worth of O-Level French, which surfaces during the exercises we do during the French lessons and then equally quickly submerges. I'm now at the frustrating stage where I am only too aware that, from time to time when I am bashing along confidently, I must sound exactly like Officer Crabtree, the British secret agent posing as a French policeman in 'Allo, Allo': "Good Moaning. The resistonce have planted a bum. They are going to ex-plod the whaleway brodge..."

"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. (Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.)" Groucho Marx
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Jun 2007
Re: Allo, allo - learning French in ten easy stages
by CaroleandClive • Thu 12 Jul 2007 16:56
I really identify with you... My uncle was a french teacher and I really thought that I'd got a reasonable, if basic, understanding after helping with exchange trips, and so on, but nooo. Then I lived in Jersey for a season at 18 in a shared farmhouse with Bretons, couldn't understand a word! Now after many years and occasional forays to Institute Francaise and other courses, still only scratching the surface. So I am now investing in 1-1 coaching, with a great teacher. Still its all fun, probably not for those trying to decipher my sentences, and still have blushing encounters with our neighbours, but will just keep on trying.
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Dec 2006
Re: Allo, allo - learning French in ten easy stages
by Annik • Tue 17 Jul 2007 14:44
Thanks very much for your comment! We have just come back from five days of celebrating the 20th anniversary of the twinning and the "total immersion" involved was great - though I'm sure from the occasional puzzled expressions on our friends' faces, there must have been some "whaleway brodge" moments. I have the same problem with shorthand which I learned as a cub reporter at the age of 18; my brain recalls that various angles are involved for a certain word but often dishes them up mirror-image - which doesn't exactly help with the interpretation of the outlines...
Bien amicalement (or All god washes)
"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. (Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.)" Groucho Marx
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Jun 2007
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