Moi, je ne regrette rien. Well, I don’t have many big regrets, but I do regret never having learnt to speak another language fluently. I learnt French and Russian at school; did a year of French at university before chucking in my degree; six months intensive German when I wintered, physically and emotionally, in Berlin back in the mid 1980s. I have a smattering of Greek, a word or two of Turkish. And I can say ‘Today is a total fire ban day in the entire state of Victoria’ in Italian, thanks to the multilingual radio announcements I absorbed in my childhood. But fluent – non, nein, nyet.
A regret, then, that has flickered and niggled, on and off, for many years, without me actually doing anything about it. After all, where would I find the time to study French or Greek on top of work, writing, and feeding my culture habit? And then in September, dans un moment fou, I found myself signing up for French evening classes at L’Institut Français, two hours per week – plus homework – for fifteen weeks. The itch to revive my dormant French began to tickle more insistently following our trip to Paris late last year, when I’d managed to drag out a few French phrases from their 30 years’ slumber. But the real catalyst was an encounter with John Hegley at Beyond Words in May. In the second half of his highly entertaining set he asked for a volunteer, someone who knew a bit of French, and (encore un moment fou) I raised my hand. My task was to translate into English the passage he read in French from his dual English-French book The Adventures of Monsieur Robinet. Zut! I managed that fairly well, and no, Monsieur Robinet could not go to Paris with Madame Toutmoi next Saturday as he would be giving his dog a bath. Then, having passed me a copy of his book, John Hegley set my next challenge: turn to page 22 and read the French text while he read the English version on the opposite page. Oh là là! Off we cantered and I just about managed to keep up with the tale of Monsieur Robinet’s invitation to dinner chez Madame Toutmoi who had bought a big pear especially. Generous applause followed, and Monsieur Hegley professed himself so impressed with my performance that he kindly gave me a copy of the book. Now, it is one thing to impress a roomful of English people with my French pronunciation, and it is quite another to get by in Paris, to string a sentence together and be able to understand the reply, as our few days there in July amply brought home to me.
So, the last 15 weeks have been un voyage, une aventure et quelquefois une lutte. Even more so for mon compagnon fidèle who, for his own reasons, took the plunge and signed up for the absolute beginners class on the same evening. I’ve unearthed quite a bit of buried vocabulary and learnt lots of new words and phrases, such as patapouf (fatso), flonflons (brass band music) and sous tiret (underscore). Oh, the joys of delving into un dictionnaire! I’ve re-encountered the subjunctive, and written about Ma vie dans dix ans (une fantaisie, vous comprenez). We’ve listened to Jacques Brel and Françoiz Breut and I’m developing a slightly worrying taste for French pop music merci à French Radio London. The experience has reminded me how hard language learning is, pushing me beyond ma zone de confort, and I’m full of admiration for those of my fellow students from Poland, Italy, Estonia, Greece – living and working in London with functional English and learning French on top of that. It’s been stimulating but not great for our stress levels, and I confess I’m looking forward to having our Tuesday evenings back. Fluency is probably beyond my reach now, but I hope to maintain an engagement with French. Madame Fong, my old French teacher, would approve, j’espère.
Listen and Repeat
Madame Fong ruled the language lab,
doubly exotic in crepe de Chine
and discreet jade jewellery.
Cupping a hand expectantly
around her petite and foreign ear,
a coquettish tilt to her head,
Ecoutez et répétez.
Clunk of tape machine.
The ears of twenty Presbyterian Ladies
resounded to Je voudrais une tasse de thé.
Affecting ennui, we chanted
Je voodray oon tass de tay.
Too much antipodean twang
to please Madame Fong.
we mimicked her gestures,
hands poised at our ears, declaiming
Ecoutez et répétez,
rolling our Rs with relish.
We did not know our privilege.
The boat people were in the news.
Madame Fong taught us French.
We remained disengaged.
Désolée, Madame Fong,
je suis désolée.