This piece is not a personal criticism. My chic papillonphile high school French teacher shone out like a crazy diamante among the disproportionately high number of unique characters who taught me at high school.
I took French in year 8 (first year of high school under the South Australian system). At my school we could choose between French, German or Japanese. French was the most popular, followed by German. Good European languages, which our parents had suffered at school before us. And so terribly practical in the Antipodes.
Japanese was avant-garde, only bizarre kids chose Japanese.
I selected French because it is the language of ballet. From my nine years of dancing, I could practically speak French. Yes, me, a ballerina. Tutus, ribbons and curious bulging tights. I was the prédécesseur of Billy Elliot. I had an unfair advantage, owing to my very practical French vocabulary. Words like “posterior” and “derrière”.
Then I quit ballet. The teasing defeated me at last. Non, je ne regrette rien.
However, I was stuck with my decision to take French.
It was my first real language study. And it was taught the good old way. The text book described a bon voyage to Calais to meet Madeleine and Pierre, a visit to la poste, then la piscine. By now, les enfants terribles in class were pissing themselves laughing.
Most comprehended that six in French is six, autumn is automne and June is Juin. I was confused. Then we added “le” and “la”. This was out of control. French pronunciation didn’t follow the logic of English phonetics. They mispronounced “pain” and “poisson”. The teacher joked that “one man’s fish is another man’s poisson”. This has stuck in my head for 30 years. Language teachers take note: jokes are a good memorisation tool. So are repulsive things. So are sexual things. But not at high school.
In second year, I bid adieu to Francais. I switched to Japanese, with its more systematic, comprehensible writing system. Anglo countries should adopt it as their lingua franca.
Incidentally, my Japanese teacher was not Japanese. But he had an infectious passion. Consequently, I’m a firm believer in the ability of non-native language teachers.
By the end of high school, no one was studying French anymore. The German students (now only two) were reading short stories. In Japanese class (four of us, we won) we could, with near pinpoint accuracy, ask for the location of the toilet.
Now, years later, I have resolved to mount my Matterhorn of French, the easy way. Sans grammar. Per chance, I encountered Michel Thomas* (not literally) at Kinokuniya bookstore. “No text book”, the CD jacket boasted. Parfait.
*born Moniek Kroskof
The past year of studying French has been comme ci comme ça. But certain things have left a strong impression on me, and I wondered “Why didn’t someone tell me that before?” (The following points include embellishments)
(1) Comprehension of French is actually très simple.
(2) Perhaps half of the words in English come from French. Words we use every day, like café and bourgeoisie. Michel Thomas courses are built around these words we already recognise (cognates). After lesson one, you can enquire about the French political economy. Directions to les toilettes are in the advanced course.
(3) I’ve realised now that if I don’t know the word in French, I can invent one. On my previous voyage to France, I had to explain a river flooding. I tried to think of the “fancy word” for “flood”, and sure enough “inundation”, pronounced with my Michel Thomas French accent did the trick. (FR: “inondation”)
(4) The easy words are the hardest, as the basic vocab differs from Anglo-Saxon, while the high level stuff is simple. Listening to French people converse, sounds like I’m back in the café where the left-wing students sipped lattes at university. They didn’t talk with friends. They had conversation with colleagues. Et it didn’t just sound clever, it had an intelligent ambience.
(5) Recently I discovered doublets—pairing of French terms and the English (Anglo-Saxon) equivalent (one term for the French-speaking classes, the other for the plebs). There are beaucoup still used in legal settings.
law and order
lord and master
love and cherish
ways and means
(3) Learn one, learn them all: the Romance languages, that is. My class in Toulouse had speakers from Spanish, Italian, Portuguese (the teacher spoke all of these too), and Romanian speaking backgrounds. For them, French was a promenade in the parc.
Certainly if my high school French teacher had told me how difficult Japanese would be, and how foolish I was to quit French, none of this nonsense would have ever happened, and I could have lived a life of sans souci, kawaii-free bliss.