The key to mastering French is to practice, practice and practice. My problem is that my theory and grammar is good so when I speak, I am aware of exactly when and how I am butchering this pretty language. I feel shy, self-conscious and endlessly apologetic. Then I give up. In typical English fashion, I capitulate without trying hard enough and I ask, ‘Parlez-vous Anglais?’ I then expect the locals to stumble along in pigeon English, which is as difficult for them as French is for me.
Alastair needs a full medical check up for his life insurance. I located an English-speaking doctor but it is difficult to find one with an English-speaking receptionist too. ‘Never mind, ‘ I thought, ‘This is a good opportunity and, come hell or high water, I will book this appointment in French only.’ And I did.
I imagined the conversation beforehand and wrote a script using Google Translate. As soon as the receptionist answered the phone, I breathed in deeply and bulldozed into my first sentence.
There were some unexpected obstacles. I forgot my telephone number, which veered me off script. I was surprised she asked Alastair’s date of birth so I racked my brains at high speed for ‘1976’ in words. I explained the appointment was for my husband and not for me. She asked if it was his first time with this doctor and I realised I didn’t know how to conjugate the verb ‘to come’ off the cuff. I replied that it is the first time I am coming to the doctor (je viens), which caused some confusion. ‘Is the appointment for you or your husband?’
Vendredi a 8h30. Mission accomplished.
French is difficult. People say that there is a part of the brain that is dedicated to processing and absorbing languages. These neural pathways in my brain have been neglected so they are overgrown and choked with weeds and other foliage. Every day I clear out the blockages with vocab, grammar and reading drills. My brain responds with sack-like uncooperativeness. I wonder if it is harder because I am older. When I was at school, my brain was soft and elastic, like dough in a baker’s hands. Now, in my old(er) age, it’s more resistant and set in its English ways.
Alastair’s company is very generous towards their employees. They hired a Russian to give staff and their spouses French lessons for a month. When the course was over, there was an outcry because the staff wanted more lessons so they could count higher than ten. The company gave in and bought more. For the past three weeks, no one has pitched up and I’ve been the only pupil. It’s just Tatiana The Russian and me.
These days learning French is my primary mission in life so I take my lessons seriously. They are on Tuesday and Thursday evenings in the office boardroom and I arrive well in advance, just to be on the safe side. The company keeps a stash of water bottles, pens, notepads and bonbons for the staff who have meetings in the boardroom during the day. I miss the free stuff that comes with working for a corporate. Before every lesson, I take a bottle of water (or two), a new notepad, a pen and one of every colour bonbon. While I wait for my teacher, I lay out my notepaper, my textbooks and reading books in parallel and I place my new pen perpendicularly above them. Sometimes I arrange my bonbons into the shape of a millipede while I listen for Tatiana’s footsteps. By the time she eventually walks through the door, I am bouncing in my chair and raring to go.
Every lesson I read aloud from children’s books such as ‘Cats and Dogs’ or ‘TomTom and Nana’. Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I see Tatiana yawn. Not an outright yawn though. It is one of those stifled yawns where the mouth opens slightly and the neck thickens outwards. Sometimes I see her blink rate increasing, like mine does when I am really bored or tired. Shame, I don’t blame her. She spends all day teaching people how to speak beginner French. If I had to listen to someone stumble over basic things like, ‘Millie is 4 years old. Millie has a dog. The dog is called Paco’, my head would also get a bit woolly.
Tatiana said most people read in clipped monotone so I am sensitive to the poor woman’s needs and I read with gusto. When a man speaks, I put on a man’s voice, when someone is angry, I speak in a really angry voice, when a dog barks, I give a deep, guttural WOOF.
My French lessons are both physically and mentally exhausting and I sleep well on Tuesday and Thursday nights. I can’t wait for the day when French words will roll off my tongue, like the English ones. Learning a new language chews up brainpower and I feel I permanently chug along in mental 1st gear. All I want to do is slide into 5th, put my foot flat on the accelerator and tear down the French-speaking freeway, just like a local.