That’s was me talking to my Mother in a snarky teenage voice, when she grilled me about my painfully low mark on my report card in Grade 10 French. It was a struggle the whole way through and I ended up with what was most likely a sympathy pass, so the teacher wouldn’t have to deal with me again the next term.
With the exception of a wine infused weekend in Paris at the age of 22, French didn’t pass my lips again until my late 20’s when I met my husband. On our first date he told me that French was actually his first language, and the language his family spoke at home.
“I speak French”, I beamed as a giant smile spread across my face, “Pamplemousse!”
He stared at me blankly, wondering why I just said ‘grapefruit’ for no reason. Clearly he wasn’t quite as familiar as I was with the label of the delicious vodka-grapefruit coolers that I considered a food group for a good portion of my university career.
My grapefruit comment gave him a pretty good insight to the level of my French and my first trip to Quebec with him confirmed his suspicions of just how terrible my French was.
There we were, my first time in French-Canada, in a cute little restaurant, patiently awaiting our poutines, as I excused myself for a quick bathroom break before our gravy covered, cheese and french fry feast arrived.
As I walked to the back of the restaurant I stared blankly at the bathroom door signs. What the heck? ‘Hommies’?
I weighed my options, wondering which door to go through, and questioning just how many rap-type guys visited this poutine joint in order for them to mark the mens bathroom “Hommies”.
After an uncomfortably long pause, standing in front of the bathroom door contemplating their choice of wording, my grade 10 French came reeling back and I finally figured out that the sign on the door didn’t in fact say ‘Hommies’, but ‘Hommes’, which means “Men” in French.
When I think of that story it makes me realize just how far I’ve come after four years of living in France.
You now have an idea of where my French was when I arrived in the land of wine and cheese: embarrassing.
I spent a year studying French in Paris when we moved to France. I did large group classes, small group classes, one on one intensive courses, cooking classes and even language exchange, speed dating type classes. I studied French until my brain hurt.
When we moved to the South of France, the classes continued, although put on hold twice to make time for babies. My French finally became functional. It still wasn’t eloquent, but I had become functionally bilingual. It felt fantastic to finally be able to wipe that stupid blank stare on my face when someone said something to me in French. I understood what they said, and I was able to answer them. I no longer needed to fake illness if I was invited to a French persons house and I stopped avoiding my neighbours. I could even make phone calls without breaking into cold sweats; charades were no longer needed to get my point across. This was amazing.
Then I went back to the French speaking part of Canada.
Excuse me while I just look for that stupid blank stare to put back on my face. What were all these people saying? My ears were not prepared for the accent that was thrown at me, as we landed in the Montreal airport. My husband’s amused smile in the backseat of the taxi was enough to signal that he found it entertaining that his wife, from anglophone Northern Ontario, had become a typical Parisienne snob about her French.
I was lost again. The language was the same but my ability to understand it was not. The best example I can think of would be if an Asian person learned English in Australia, then you drop them in rural Ireland. Good luck with that.
As I try and bend my ear around my native country’s French I remember once again what it’s like to learn a language. It’s do-able, but it’s tough!
Time, patience, practice. Practice, patience, time. Repeat.
So next time you find yourself faced with someone who’s English is sub-par, remember that even though they may sound uneducated or like they just fell off the back of a turnip truck, they very well may have a few university degrees under their belt. Why do they have that defeated look on their face? They’re probably weighed down with a whole sack of frustration in the fact that learning another language as an adult just might be the ultimate humbling experience.
Trust me, I’ve got the t-shirt.