Sunday, June 13, 2010

Learning to Speak French

My grade school French teachers allocated a lot of time to verb conjugation drills. I’m certain that we must have studied some other aspects of the language, but memories of those seemingly endless drills still send shivers down my spine; “je cours, tu cours, il court, nous courons, vous courez, ils courent.” Don’t even get me started on the irregular verbs.

Oddly enough, those inane drills were actually helpful in the development of my French literacy. I only wish that more time had been allocated to words like ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘everybody’, and ‘nobody’; words that are used far more often in common speech than in quality writing. When you first try to construct sentences in a new language, spoken or written, such words are essential and should be on the tip of your tongue or pen. Although good writers might prefer a phrase like, “There are those who,” a novice in the language can easily get by with “Some people.”

It would be nearly impossible for any Canadian to be completely French-illiterate. I say this even though I’ve spent years tutoring adult literacy in English. Total illiteracy is extremely rare and usually results from a combination of unusual circumstances. After all, years of dozing in front of our cornflakes ensures that even the extremely nearsighted and dull are able to recognize either “Milk” or “Lait” as the stuff we pour on our cereal. For those with the gumption to turn the cereal box around, words like “gratuit,” “jouet,” and “à l'intérieur,” rapidly become familiar.

When reading French, I can even stumble through a phrase like, “Il ya ceux qui déclarent le contraire.” I know that “Il y a” is “There is” and I can assume that “Il ya ceux” is a strange conjugation of that, like “there could be”. I know that “qui” is “who” and “déclarent le contraire” looks like “declare the contrary”. Putting it all together I would guess that, “Il ya ceux qui déclarent le contraire,” means “There are those who disagree” or “There are those who would say otherwise.”

Being able to decipher French is quite different than actually writing in French, however. Fortunately there are great translation websites now, and with the little French that I know I can actually catch the odd error in translation. Translating almost every e-mail has given me a lot of insight into idiomatic English expressions. For example, rather than saying, “I took French in school,” I find I get a better translation by saying, “I studied French in school.”

None of the above helps me much when I’m at work, however. If the chef took the time to write down what he wanted, and then gave me the time to decipher his message, I’m certain that my French literacy would rapidly develop to a fully fluent level. That is never going to happen though. He might say (in French), “Put down the bucket of squid and come help me drain this vat of pasta,” and I really only get one shot at interpreting what he is saying. Now I can recognize various forms of “aider” so I know he wants help, but the rest of the sentence is Greek to me (or Spanish, or literally French).

Complicating matters is the fact that people rarely say things the same way twice. He could start with the words, “Drop,” “Put down,” or “Forget about,” followed by “the bucket,” “the pail,” “the container,” or just “the squid.” There must be dozens of permutations for the first part of his command, and I only get one shot at interpreting the meaning before he tries a different permutation.

Even further complicating matters is the fact that people don’t pronounce things the way that they write them. My favorite example of this is the English phrase, “Do you want to go for coffee?” We tend to pronounce that phrase as, “Jewanna gopher coffee?” The same thing happens in French, and so suddenly I hear this out of place word like “gopher” where it doesn’t belong at all. It doesn’t help much that one cook has a thick Hungarian accent and the other has a thick Vietnamese accent. Fortunately the only important word in the aforementioned phrase is ‘coffee’ and it is easy to tell by the inflection that the rest of the sentence constitutes an invitation.

And so it is that I stumble through my days in Quebec catching maybe one word out of ten. I survive at work because I know my way around a kitchen and can usually anticipate what people will need or want me to do before a word is spoken. I get through stores by anticipating the generic scripts followed by all cashiers regardless of language. I survive commuting by bus by keeping a keen eye out for street signs and thumbing through my street atlas like it’s a treasure map. It’s hard to believe that I’ve lived in Canada for forty years and I still can’t understand the most basic spoken French phrases on the fly.

To this end I’ve taken to watching French movies. One of the problems with this strategy is that most French movies are made in France and so their accent is very different than the Quebecois accent. Movies that are dubbed into French occasionally have a Quebecois accent, but then the mouths don’t match the words so I get thrown off quite a bit. I’m hoping that I can find some good Quebecois television programs to watch. I guess that in retrospect I should have tuned the television into CBC Francais a lot more often.

So in summary I guess I can’t complain too much about my grade school French classes, although I wish there would have been more audio assignments. Had I spent as much time watching French television as I had reading cereal boxes I might be much further ahead today. Most francophones that I’ve met who have taught themselves to speak fundamental English tell me that English television was their greatest asset. I guess I’ll be spending a lot more time watching streaming television at the CBC website. Fortunately I am an optimist and I truly believe that eventually osmosis will prevail and I will end up fully bilingual. On the other hand, I am certain that il ya ceux qui déclarent le contraire.