The French Resolution
Yes, it’s that time again. New Year, new plans and new resolutions.
My new year’s resolution has been the same for the past four years. I renew my broken resolution each month so the intention has now been in place for the past 48 months but one’s resolve and one’s actions do not always work in happy syncopation.
And, just what is this resolution? It is to get to grips with spoken French. For this, I know deep in my heart that I need proper, formal lessons. On a day-to-day basis I get by perfectly well. I can make my purchases at the butchers and the bakers without too many errors and can make myself understood in telephone conversations. I’m particularly proud that I managed to conduct a visit to the gynaecologist entirely in French. But I do seem to have reached an impasse.
A few years ago before we had even considered settling in France, I did two and a half years of an Open University course in the French language. Never look down upon the Open University student and think that they’re not a “proper” undergraduate. The courses are really hard work (especially at Level 2 and beyond) requiring huge reserves of self-discipline. My particular academic year began in January and finished in early October. There were no breaks for Easter or summer holidays and when we went on holiday the books had to come with us so I could continue my studies. And, let me tell you, a Harrap’s Shorter French English Dictionary is not a lightweight object. I shudder to imagine the size of the non-short version. While friends and family soaked up the rays or explored the local markets I was locked away writing an essay usually on the dullest subject the OU administrators could dream up.
But did this dedication really help me when we made the move to these shores? Well, yes and no. They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. This became clear to me on several occasions when I embarked upon conversations with French people and realized within seconds that I had not the faintest idea what they were saying back to me. I know there must have been times when dialogue must have run along these lines:
Frenchperson: “And are your parents still living?”
Mary Anne: “Why thank you. Actually I knitted it myself.”
I can also confess to getting “Allez-y” and “Allez-vous en” mixed up thus telling a woman in the supermarket queue to “Go away” instead of “Go ahead”. A mantra I repeat inwardly is that we learn by our mistakes (and that blushing is good for the complexion).
The secret, I tell myself, is to not give up. Whilst I might cringe inwardly at my myriad blunders it is certainly worth the effort. One’s ear does become more accustomed to the rapid machine-gun speed of French chatter and eventually one can distinguish words in the gabble. It is though quite exhausting to begin with. After the telephone conversation to set up our Internet connection I needed to lie down in a darkened room for several hours. Numbers also render me a quivering wreck. If somebody has left a telephone number on their answering machine I need to call back about five times before I manage to make sense of it. When the French recite a phone number it’s in multiples of two – all those quatre-vingt-dix-septs and their mates! Why, oh why didn’t I pay more attention when I was at school?
Being curious where vocabulary is concerned is also useful. My hefty Harraps is on a shelf with my cookery books so I can consult it when I hear some key word that baffles me in a news broadcast If only I could then retain the information in my head though. Whilst, in my youth, my brain might have been able to soak up knowledge like a sponge I fear its absorbency is now that of a pumice stone. There is also the fear that if I manage to squeeze something into my memory, then something else get squeezed out. I felt this very strongly the other day when I forgot my pin number in the Saturday morning, very long queue at the supermarket. Those magic numbers that I use far too often for my husband’s liking had simply…gone. Was it because I had looked up the French word for mothballs or just one of those “age” things? Actually, I can’t remember the French for mothballs either so I fear it probably is my age.
Which brings me back to the problem with my lack of resolve where my New (okay, not so new) Year’s resolution is concerned. Would formal lessons actually help me? Perhaps I should just move on to Resolution Number Two. Join a gym – a French gym, of course – and there I could improve my French because someone will be barking orders about squeezing those buttocks, keeping those knees bent, flexing those ankles and tilting that pelvis. What with the repetitions involved all these words and phrases (as well as those blasted numbers) will soon be engraved into my memory bank and I’ll have a fabulous body to boot. Problem solved!