When you don’t know your “ou” from your elbow?
by Sarita Rao
Yep, it’s that perennial problem of trying to learn French when you are not a natural born linguist.
After two years in Luxembourg I am starting to feel like a pariah. People fresh off a spaceship from Mars seem to be able to switch into French (and English) at the drop of a hat, and yet when I try to utter any words I conjugate every verb incorrectly and speak with a dreadfully posh British accent. The result – no one understands a word I say.
Thankfully Luxembourgers are polite, patient and extremely accommodating. If they can speak English they just switch (which doesn’t help me practise French), but more often than not they speak really slowly, saying the same thing in several different ways until I understand.
It’s embarrassing, but more to the point, worrying, because my children need to be fluent in French by the time they are 12 years old, when they effectively ‘flip’ languages at school. Am I setting a good example? Certainly not when I struggle to find the words and sometimes just say the English word with a French accent (you’d be surprised how often this works).
My children have adopted my slightly stressed attitude towards French and this is showing in their performance in second language at school. In a bid to create a more positive vibe, I have put them in for extra tuition with a wonderful French lady, Celine. She plays games with them and encourages them to speak in a relaxed setting. They are making swift progress under her guidance. It’s making me feel I should start back with classes of my own so I can keep one step ahead. There is nothing worse than having to use Google translate to understand your kid’s homework. Chances are if you use Google translate you won’t understand it either.
To immerse myself in the language, I’ve been listening to French radio in the car. Yet even when the presenter is speaking slowly and clearly, the only two words I can make out are ‘François Hollande’.
What is this block I seem to have? After all, more than a third of English words are derived from French – thanks to William the Conqueror, and UK English still keeps the non-phonetic French spelling of many words unlike its American cousin.
With a nod to this English propensity to absorb foreign words, I readily incorporate French words into English all the time. “Honey I’m leaving the kids in surveillance today” is a regular in our house. In English this would mean I was leaving my kids in a maximum security prison. In French this is just the word for wraparound school care. Yet everyone in the family understands what I mean.
I have been advised by multi-linguists that I should ‘think’ in French, because thinking in English is slowing me down. I have given this approach a try and it’s dangerous. After a glass or two of red wine I am positively loquacious, mixing terrible French, English, Spanish, German, even Luxembourgish words into an embarrassing form of home-grown Esperanto, while my husband cringes in the background and tries to drag me away.
So I give myself a pep talk: “Come on, you love to talk, love to write, language is in your blood. There must be a way to speak better French”. And of course there is an answer. If I mastered English through 14 years of schooling, I need to put a bit more effort into learning French. It will not happen overnight. I need to practise, practise, and then practise some more.
This is difficult for me. I haven’t been at school for years and I don’t like doing things that I can’t ‘get’ and am not good at straight away. Yet I am expecting my kids to do just that.
So it’s back to school for all the girls in the Rao Muldoon household. Let’s hope that this time my French teacher covers topics such as how to get the broadband connection installed, how to ask for a Black & Decker strimmer spool in Hornbach, and dealing with a car mechanic, so I can finally go about my everyday life without resorting to ‘Franglais’.
Take a read of Sarita Rao's other articles in her column:The L Word
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