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Pardon mon Français

12 April 2014 | Diary

I tip my chapeau to anyone who successfully masters a second language. I for one have given up.

Surprise-Surprise, you’re probably thinking, the lazy hipster dipstick didn’t commit. It’s those piano lessons and Judo classes all over again.

But hear me out. You haven’t heard my defense yet. When you do, I think you’ll agree that I’ve done the right thing.

You see, it turns out that learning French is really, really hard.

To learn a second language as an adult is like trying to complete a cross-country run in a pair of tap shoes. You’re trying to master something you can vaguely remember disliking at school, using equipment unfit for purpose.

At first, you think it’s going to be an ambitious but conceivably-achievable matter of replacing each known word in your brain with another one (“house” with “maison”, for example) but it’s not like that at all! AT ALL.

The grammar is completely different for starters. Saying “Ou est la table pour mon reservation?” (literally, “where is the table for my reservation?”) is meaningless to the point of incomprehension. You may as well waltz on up and say “Trousers! Shindig for trousers, yes?”

To my own ear, I sound like Charles de Gaul himself but when I put my new-found phrases into practice, a post office clerk will look at me if I’ve walked in and insisted on administering a rectal thermometer.

The complaint that the grammar is radically different doesn’t even account for advanced things like nuance. My entire admittedly-microbial success in life so far can be attributed to having a nuanced command of the English language. It’s how I get jobs. It’s how I convince people to go to bed with me. If it weren’t for my ability to say things with implied italics or inverted quotation marks–almost all without wiggling my eyebrows–I’d still be an eczematic virgin stacking corned beef at a KwikSave in Dudley.

If I worked hard at it–using the 100%-success-guaranteed “Parlez Vous!” tapes and conjugating verbs with refugees at a YMCA evening class–I concede that, one day, a decade or so from now, I might conceivably have a good enough grip on French to convey basic meaning.

But to charm an interview panel in French? Or bribe a nightclub bouncer? Or deliver a clever bon-mot? No. It will never happen.

I know people do it all the time, but I also know that people went into space and installed the Canadarm (which may sound like a brand of anti-fungal foot powder, but is pants-down incredible).

Audiences used to give standing ovations to “The Armless Wonder”, a vaudeville sideshow act in which a tragically de-armed fellow in a tuxedo would show off his ability to light a cigarette or whip up a Spanish omelette using only his feet.

As accomplishments go, that’s nothing compared to a thirty-year-old British person–armless or otherwise–successfully learning French. But you never see a chinless Brit standing on a soapbox in Coney Island saying “Voici mon perfect Francais! Ces’t formidable, non?

But you should.

French, by the way, is a language fairly similar to English in many ways. How any English speaker learns something really different like Japanese or Javascript is nothing short of miraculous. It must be like trying to build a house using only a spoon.

I’m sure that learning French is valuable if you enjoy the process somehow or if you’re training to be a diplomat or a professional show-off. But to my ends, as an immigrant, I was basically only doing it to be polite.

Yes. To be polite. And because I’m English and my default mode is crippling politeness, it took me a while to realise it.

So stick it, Quebec, right up ta collective derriere. Learn French indeed. What kind of imposition is that to put on a guest? I wouldn’t mind leaving my shoes at the door or refraining from swearing when your grandma’s around, but learn a whole new language? Sacré bleu.

Besides, isn’t eighty per cent of communication is body language? Is it not true that even when you don’t speak his language, a waiter knows precisely how much spit to put in your soup?

So what I do now, when I need to speak to someone in another language, is use my own language, but louder.

When that fails, there’s always the noble art of the frantic gesture.

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