Pardon my French

Since 5 years we have a lovely house in France. When we bought it my French was far from perfect. Actually, I had rarely spoken it from since I had left the gymnasium in Vienna. I blame our teacher who sometimes fell asleep in class — these were afternoon classes — when we had to do our homework. It was mostly grammar and far from inspiring. My acquaintance with Sartre, Camus, Yourcenar and others was in English, German or Dutch translations.

During the years that followed I have travelled a lot and stayed in other countries for longer periods. I also visited France frequently for skiing and sometimes summer holidays and as much as I like to ‘mingle’ with the locals and adapt to a new environment, I never felt the urge to take lessons. As long as I could order food and arrange an accommodation…

Now it’s different. I have become a frequent inhabitant of a small hamlet in the middle of nowhere, all French. Now I have to, because I am dependent on their knowledge of French living, the surrounding area, where to find a plummer or a carpenter. Now I want to, because they are friendly and helpful and they are full of stories. And now I really try to speak French and have conversations.

My wife is a grammar lover and every time we drive to France she tries to work me through tenses and all that, but I’m not very good in drumming sets and series, I’m probably traumatized by my youth and obviously too lazy to digest rules (yet and again)… So what I do is trying. Happy-go-lucky, make mistakes (a lot) but get myself understood nonetheless. I have found my ‘guerilla’ tactics, if I may call it that.

I’m building my French on a small foundation with all kinds of foreign materials. I dig in my ‘gymnastic’ memory and find Latin words, I search English for words that might have a French origin (thanks to the Normans!) and ‘frenchify’ them, I do the same with Italian and Spanish fragments I remember. And you know what: it works more often than I expect. When I detect the odd dubious frown, I take a detour by rephrasing (“C’est-à-dire…”) or introduce a metaphor (“C’est quelque chose comme…”) and try to get out of the thicket myself. Sometimes I get friendly nods, sometimes I get new words. My vocabulary is growing.

My neighbour in the hamlet is a retired head of a school. She speaks English but does not do it with me. When I’m there, she always invites me at her kitchen table, asks questions, lets me try, suggests (new) words and then, when I’m really lost in a long sentence I try to craft, she is merciful and says: ”Say it in English…” That’s all, the rest of the conversation continues in French. She accepts my tactics and she says it’s because I try. And she compliments me every time I’m visiting because I have accomplished more eloquence (a competence, I guess). She’s my guerrilla teacher. She lets me make mistakes and facilitates and complements my learning.

By the way, I always have and still believe learning and mastering a language orally first (it’s a form of ‘thinking / talking aloud’) gives the confidence boost you need to appreciate (and maybe even enjoy) the realm of grammar. This year I dare to start reading French literature in French. Croisez les doigts…


Storyteller: Peter Frühmann, Storybag, The Netherlands — partner in the Erasmus+ project GuLL and Lifelong Literacy Learner

More info about GuLL: www.pleasemakemistakes.eu

Guerilla Literacy Learning is a project co-funded from Erasmus+ (Agreement no. 2014–1-BE02-KA200–000472)

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