‘What sheet?’ I asked.
‘You know, Zhoolee, that sheet we spoke about the other day. I am sick of that sheet.’
‘Sheet? The shit. You mean to say that shit we spoke about!’
Sometimes, when French people speak English, I hear the cutest things. I got an email from my recruiter and he wrote ‘Dear Julie. I wanna know how things are progressing in your new job.’ Wanna? Yo dude, come again?
I am sympathetic because I make the same mistakes with my pidgin French. My French teacher once asked me what I did one afternoon and I said I swept the ceiling (J’ai balayé le plafond). Another time, I finished my grammar exercise, put up my hand and announced with gusto ‘I am finished’. I said, ‘Madame, je suis fini’. Apparently that means that I am dead, finito, caput. My teacher said that I must rather say ‘J’ai fini’ which means I have finished a task.
Since we moved to Switzerland in March 2011, learning French has been my number one priority. It is a pity that I work in English because this slows my progress. I don’t speak French to my colleagues because most of them are stressed out and don’t have the time to listen to me grapple for words and buffer like a slow YouTube video.
At work I’ve been learning indirectly by eavesdropping on conversations and reading English emails written by French people. People often say, ‘thank you to do this’ and ‘thank you to do that’ and it turns out that this is a direct translation of the way one asks someone to do something politely. Now I know that if I want someone to, for example, close the door, I should say ‘Merci de fermer la porte. Thank you to close the door’.
One of the reasons why this language is so difficult is because the French generally don’t pronounce the last letter of words. They don’t say words the way they are written so I can’t translate sounds into vocab that I recognize. The bold and gruff pronunciation of the Germanic languages is ingrained into me. French is more nasal. My tongue is stubborn and it takes practice and discipline to say these new words and use the soft intonation that makes French so delicate and gentle. When I speak, I feel I am tramping through a field of beautiful, freshly fallen snow.
The word for hot is ‘chaud’. My instinct is to say ‘ch-ord’ but it is supposed to sound more like ‘shore’. ‘Pneu’ is tyre and it is pronounced like a sneeze. Whenever I say it, I expect someone will pass me a tissue. The most complex French word so far is eggs which is ‘les œufs’. Initially I called them ‘lez oofs’ but you actually say it more like ‘lez ur’. When a shop assistant told me muffins were in the same aisle as ‘lez ur’, I walked in circles but if they had said they were near ‘lez oofs’, I would have marched straight over.
I suspect the reason why French doesn’t yet roll off my tongue is because I overcomplicate things. I think of words in English and try to translate them in my head. Often I never even use these words in English anyway. I was explaining to my teacher that I am hard on myself and expect myself to speak fluent French instantaneously. I scratched my head and rolled my eyes to the ceiling to find the French equivalent of ‘instantaneously’. Instantaneousment? No. Instantement? No, that’s not it. I stuttered and spluttered, desperate to release the words while my French teacher encouraged me like she was a cheerful midwife. ‘Come on, push, keeping pushing. You can do it! Keep trying! It’s coming! You’re nearly there!’ In hindsight, why didn’t I just say ‘now’? I want to speak fluent French now. Maintenant. It was as simple as that.
To learn French properly, you must be sheep dipped in it for an extended period. There are too many English-speaking expats in the Geneva area and one can’t speak properly by only doing a lesson here and there.
I need to sign up for some kind of French boot camp that bans all English. I need discipline. I have discovered there are retreats in France where they immerse you in French 24/7. They strictly forbid any other languages. You can sign up for 2 weeks or more and apparently, after a while, it can feel like a concentration camp for language learning. Super! One of my friends went for a month and towards the end her brain was smoking. She said that the French-only rule was rigidly applied. Often, after lessons, the students looked left and right and then darted behind the bushes and whispered to each other in frantic English.
Initially I thought that learning French would be a great way to meet people and I hoped I could kill two birds with one stone. I find French lessons are a write off in the friendship department. At level B1 most of us express ourselves like the average 4 your old and after we’ve said ‘Bonjour, ça va’ and made a bit of small talk here and there, we sit in silence and stare at each other. People have different mother tongues so, if we can’t communicate well in French, we can’t communicate at all. Initially I assumed English was the number 1 language of the world and everyone spoke it, especially here in Europe. Once I watched a YouTube clip of an English interview with a French celebrity who required a translator. Someone put a comment below the video and said, ‘How the hell can people not speak English in this day and age?’
I have an announcement. Learning French has helped me decide on a new career path. I have reached the conclusion that working for others in the corporate world is the pits. Over the next couple of months, I want to start my own business and teach English to foreigners. I like English. I like teaching. I like foreigners. So, why not? And the most important thing is that I have been there, done that but with French. I understand. And also, in this day and age, how the hell can anyone not speak English?