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Smoked Meat Diaries #8: Je comprends pas! (partie II)

Posted by Will / May 12, 2009

20090512-willschool.jpgSo why can't I speak French? We live in a bilingual country, don't we?! Ha ha ha. Elle oh elle, as the kids say. Growing up I received the standard Western Canadian second-language education. Two hours per week of classroom instruction by French teachers who, in hindsight, probably spoke about as much French as Inspector Clouseau. Most of these classes consisted of watching videos of an incorrigibly annoying clown named Sol and reading Le Petit Prince, a much-beloved novella about a boy who hangs out on miniature planets (personally, I couldn't suspend disbelief to appreciate Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's profound statements about life and human nature - I mean, first of all, how are Le Petit Prince's eyes not being sucked out of his head by the vacuum of the planets' airless atmospheres? Second of all, those planets were so tiny that the negligible gravitational pull wouldn't be able to hold him in place and he'd simply shoot off into outer space the moment he lifted a foot off the ground. Ridiculous.)

Twelve years of French classes throughout elementary, junior high, and high school accomplished almost nothing. Bon job Monsieur Trudeau. Obviously, some things have stuck with me. I can still conjugate the hell out of French verbs. Trust me on that one.

I think 95% of class time was spent conjugating verbs. "Er" verbs, "Ir" verbs, "Re" verbs. You name it, we conjugated it. If there was such a thing as a "Ur" verb, we would've conjugated it too if we could get our grubby little pencils on it. I suppose there was so much verb-conjugation going on because our teachers were oblivious to the fact that there's more to speaking French than knowing the first-person plural conjugation of "vouloir" into the imparfait (It's "nous voulions," by the way. See! Nailed it!). Mrs. Breznik would've been totally screwed if someone shouted at her "Soyez attention!" and she stopped to confirm that être had been properly conjugated into the imperatif before being run down by a speeding bus.

To be fair, we didn't just learn conjugation. Ask any Anglophone who grew up with a similarly futile French-language education and they will almost invariably be able to recall the following four French expressions:

1) A mon avis.
2) Chacun son goût.
3) Comme ci, comme ça.
4) Zut alors!

Zut alors is a favourite of mine. In all of our French textbooks and basic readers we were led to believe that Quebecois and Quebecoises sling around this phrase with impunity. But that's like assuming Anglophones walk around saying, "Awww shucks!" or "Golly gee wiz!" Don't get me wrong, you can use those expressions if you like. Chacun son goût, after all.

There's also no way to forget that the French word for "seal" is "phoque" which, of course, leads to all sorts of high jinx and poppycock (and in rare cases, brouhaha). A few months ago, La Belle Fille was watching a French news show in the other room - I thought she was watching an exposé on Inuit in the adult film industry until I realized it was actually a story about seal hunting in the Arctic. When I was 11 years old, I asked my Grade 5 French teacher, Mrs. Konyk, for the French word for seal. I got the chuckles I sought from my fellow classmates but she was not too pleased with my obvious attempt to have her say the word "fuck" out loud. Oh, kids say the darndest things!

20090512-symbols.jpgFast-forward 17 years and I'm back taking French classes. This time, voluntarily. I was fortunate to be able to take free French classes as an employee of McGill University. The best part is that courses are offered at a variety of learning levels. After taking a placement exam, I was disappointed to learn that I'd be starting at Level 1. Really? I suck that much? Zut alors.

My first class was a bit worrisome for two reasons. First, there was an insufferable moron in my class who thought it was amateur comedy hour. He came in 10 minutes late and immediately started firing off bad jokes. He opened with, "The only French I know has to do with kissing!" and closed with, "Sacrebleu?! More like 'Blessed orange'!" Wow. He had a dozen more gems in between. I'm surprised he didn't ask the teacher to tell everyone the French word for seal.

The second reason I didn't enjoy the class too much was that we spent the full hour-and-a-half learning how to say "Je m'appelle Will" and "Comment-allez vous?" I needed to be challenged more than that. There was no chance I could spend another minute listening to that Toolbox make another bad French pun while learning how to say "Bonjour." After class, I wrote the instructor an email and she gladly moved me up to the next level.

And so it went. After two two-hour classes each week for 12 weeks I can honestly say I have seen some improvement in my French. Before I could only understand about 15% of what people around me were saying. Now I can understand about 50%. But when you're missing half the conversation, it's arguably even more frustrating. I'll be hanging out with Montrealers and sometimes I'll hear something that I believe to be offside but I wouldn't dare say a thing - for instance, maybe I thought I heard someone say something disparaging about Rita MacNeil when, in fact, they were complimenting her vocal range. Besides, I wouldn't even know the French translation of "national treasure" if I wanted to defend Ms. MacNeil.

French classes do not resume again until September. In the meantime, I'm going to look to the Belle Fille to help me improve my French... French kissing that is!!!!!!

Relevant song:
"Francis" par CÅ“ur de Pirate:
Tu as tant de chose à dire/ Mais le tout reste enfermer/ Et quand tu ne sais plus quoi dire/ Tu te mets à pleurer.

Photo credits go to the author himself, and MP Flickr pooler Your new buddy.

Discussion

10 Comments

Margot / June 22, 2009 at 01:48 pm
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Comments on this post in another incarnation:

>>>
Sol c'est de la bombe cher.
FYI : http://www.onf.ca/film/evenements_doctobre_1970
Posted by: G.Nault at May 13, 2009 10:49 AM

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You mention yourself "hanging out with Montrealers"... what does that make you? When are you going to consider yourself a Montrealer, instead of someone who just hangs out with Montrealers, sometimes?
You live and work in Montreal. That makes you a Montrealer. Except, it also doesn't.

But then, why is this series being written by Will Shead and posted by Margot? Does she have the Montrealer status that Will will never have?
Posted by: bleh at May 14, 2009 3:00 AM

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um... Belle Fille??? I thought it is "ma blonde" for girlfriend en français, non?
Posted by: Ada at May 14, 2009 12:28 PM

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First you get the poutine, then you get the Habs tickets, then you get the power...to post your own articles on this website.

I guess I was waiting for the swearing-in ceremony before calling myself a true Montrealer.

As for "La Belle Fille" - that's purely a literary device. Ma blonde veut rester anonyme (can you blame her?).
Posted by: Will Shead at May 14, 2009 12:50 PM

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Living in mtl you get exposed to french canadian media... there's a lot of it... And you still don't get it!? Cibole, there must be something "sealing" wrong with your brain then...
I master both languages, that makes me more canadian than you'll ever be.
Posted by: Marc at May 15, 2009 7:31 AM

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Yes Marc, your maple leaf is far bigger than mine. Maybe after I've lived here for more than a few months I will be half the patriot you are. In meantime, all bow down to Marc (aka: Captain Canada).
Posted by: Will Shead at May 15, 2009 9:31 AM

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After reading this post, i had to go and read all of them. So hilarious and so true!

I'm a quebecoise married to an american. i've been living in the states for almost 2 years. i think you are the first one who actually pinpoint so clearly the cultural (shock) difference between english native outside quebec and a french-montrealer. You're depiction on language barriers, the double-kiss cheeks(that got me some chuckles in the states when i did that to his family) or the general driving in montreal that scared the hell out of my husband. I can't help but link every articles to him be "look! look! you're not alone thinking that!"
my personal favorite though is the parking game. I'm currently in montreal (with my car) visiting my sister and i totally forgot about the stupid parking gimmick. i already got a ticket *sigh*
thank you for the good laughs! i'll be following your adventures, especially since my husband would like in the future to move to montreal!
Posted by: Julie Parent at May 15, 2009 5:10 PM

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Heard of you chronicles in the last Midnight Poutine Podcast.
Very nice and funny! Really liked it.
It is too bad that you had to learn french through Sol or Antoine de St-Exupéry: they are amazingly good at writting. Thing is, they play on so many levels of comprehension at the same time its often hard to get, even for native speakers.

It's great you decided to take lessons again! About 60% of english comes from french- if you see it this way you start with so much more than a german or a chinese person! :D
Lâche pas!
Posted by: Dominique at May 17, 2009 2:23 AM
Erin / October 19, 2009 at 07:03 pm
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Hey Will,
Your writing and observations are hilarious. Please write more!
-Erin
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