Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pardon, Mademoiselle...

Did you learn a language in school?

Most of us had the option of learning Spanish, maybe French, maybe Latin in high school. Depending on your geographic location, you might have been forced to learn at a much younger age. Phoenicians begin their Spanish tutorial in preschool, for example.

Well, I had the good fortune of being born to a multi-lingual family. My parents and extended family collectively speak about 834 languages. While I won't claim proficiency in any of them, I did develop an ear for inflections and an understanding that language, in all forms, is a gift.

Most of my family speaks Spanish. I know enough to understand when they are making fun of me or where they hid the Christmas presents. I know the basic exchanges of polite introductory conversation, though if asked too quickly I will get a glazed look in my eyes. While I would like to one day speak Spanish fluently, I chose not to formally learn it when my guidance counselor glared at me atop her giant spectacles and asked what I wanted to do with my life and would I like to take physical education or home economics (neither) and could I please take the accelerated math class because the other ones were full (yes, but I still failed).

Instead, I chose to learn French. While I wanted to be practical, go with what I was more familiar with, choose the language that 96 percent of my classmates chose, I just felt a pull towards the language of romance.

I was born in Montreal, Quebec. If you haven't been there, it is a lovely city that is extremely proud to be French speaking. As in all areas outside of the U.S., they really can speak more than one language. However, they will only reluctantly use English with you and make you feel like a giant arse because of it. How dare you come to their city and not know the language!

My parents, big sister and I were in Canada for a few years. My parents learned the language, my sister could speak French phrases, and I like to think that my first words were in French. My parents can neither confirm nor deny this, as they are wont to remember their address, let alone some words that were uttered twenty some-odd years ago.

I wanted to feel some connection to the land of my birth, wanted to practice my accent far away from French people ears (so as not to be French laughed at) and wanted an excuse to go to college in Switzerland. So I sat through French lessons with a truly abysmal teacher (the first year) a lovely engaging teacher (the next two years) and then with no teacher at all, as there were not enough students to warrant such a luxury.

I went to French chat rooms (as in French speaking, not porn) and tried out my knowledge...which is like chatting online with a three year old. But folks were nice, and I continued to enjoy the language.

Collegetime came around, and I couldn't fit any language classes in the first year. Fast forward to my going back to school, having to leave school for finances/marriage/work/baby/el Nino and every year I wanted to but was unable to continue in my quest to be French.

At one point, I sadly noted that I no longer could conjure the French words for such deep thoughts as "The tree is full of apples" or "The professor is going to administer a test today".

My sister, cousin, friend and I went to Paris last year. It was to be a short turnaround jaunt during our week in England, and we were all excited. It didn't really occur to me to relearn any French, as whatever I learned wouldn't be sufficient enough to be helpful. I could probably find my own way to the bathroom without asking a waiter. We wouldn't need directions to the theater, as we weren't planning on doing anything posh. So need to embarrass my American self on the streets of Paris by parroting useless phrases.

Fast forward to my awesomeness.

I'm hoping that my sister, cousin, and friend will just gracefully let me pretend that I saved our trip. I know that I didn't truly make a huge difference. But something important (for me) happened in that short 38 hour period in France.

I spoke with a woman in a subway cafe who knew zero English. I looked at her ruddy cheeks and powdered apron, decided she wouldn't scoff, and said (rough translation) "My French is very very bad. I want to order. Please forgive my very very bad French". She smiled and told me that my very bad French was better than her no English. So I bravely forged ahead and told her, in my broken French that came from nowhere that we needed three hot chocolates, a coffee, an apple tart, a cinnamon stick, and two croissants. And then...prepare to be dazzled....I asked for directions to the Eiffel Tower. And she gave them to me. And...I got us there!

It could have been the realization that I hadn't lost my brain. It could be the long lost feeling of having accomplished something other than getting my kid to sleep through the night. It could have been the ridiculously unbelievable tasse de chocolat chaud. But for the first time, in a long time, I was proud of myself.

In my mind at least, I came to the rescue a few other times. And by the time we were waiting for our airplane, I was ready to dive headfirst into the French language. Fate kept our plane for a few hours while we sat, totally giddy and full of extra Euros. There was nothing to do but shop for Eiffel Tower shot glasses and bags of candy. And fate would have it...a French version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I bought it. I might have teared up a little.

I started 'reading' immediately, totally excited at very individual word I recognized. I vowed to be able to actually read it in two years' time.

But after arriving home...well, the whole reason I'm not in school is because it doesn't work with our schedule right now. Taking classes somewhere, for credit or for fun, just isn't an option.

So I looked at the various materials you can purchase, knowing that my language obsessed father only puts his stamp of highest approval on two language companies.

Have you priced those things?

Might as well just quit my job and eat bonbons all day for the hundreds of dollars it would take to make me even slightly able to read, understand, and converse in this foreign language.

I asked for some for Christmas, along with a trip to Prague and a full scholarship to Oxford University. Oh economic recession, how you mock me.

And then, a few weeks ago when I was feeling particularly sad for myself and my workplace plight, I priced the language courses again. I found a good deal. The good deal was still out of my price range. I lamented to Facebook that I wanted someone to buy me the Pimsleur French lessons I so coveted from Amazon.

I mentioned the good deal I found to my dad, as he is always looking to add to his language learning library. He has most recently been going through the Mandarin Chinese series, and I thought he might like to peruse the good deals I had found.

And...oh still makes my heart jump...

He told me to buy the first two levels of French. I checked to make sure we were on the same page. He repeated that he would like to 'brush up' on his French, and would be happy to share the lessons.

And yesterday, to the delight of my under educated, hungry heart, I went through the first lesson.

Today I'll do the next one, and if I can retain the information, I get to go to the next one.

Before you know it, I'll be reading my Parisian airport Harry Potter book.

And this makes me très heureux.


Tracy said...

Maybe because I was famished by the time we found sustenance, but that was the best almond pastry ever. What an adventure we had!

I wish you had seen the look on my face when you started conversing with the woman who eventually fed me that cold and blustery "cafe au lait in a dixie cup" day. Confusion, hope, relief, annoyance (Why hasn't she been speaking French this entire time?) and finally, there was contentment and amusement.

I am proud of you for finding the courage to speak up that day. Those people truly are intimidating. Your French really did sound authentic to me, but what do I know? At the time of our trip all I could muster was "The hippopotamus is driving a car" in French. Hey, the lessons were free online. You get what you pay for. Glad you were able to start your Pimsleur lessons!

Anonymous said...

Madame, c'est magnifique!

AH. That was so lame.

Please start writing a blog en francais. (I can read it better than I can speak it.)