While reading Book 3 of Beth Haslam’s Fat Dogs and French Estates, she triggered a memory for me when she decided to take a French class before moving to the south of France. Her new instructor was firm and reminded her to speak in French only ‘ou parler en français seulement.’ It made me think of my many attempts to learn the language and I basically never got there.
In high school, I took four years of French. My teacher, Ms. Nessman was kind and named me Margarite’, the most French version for my middle name, Margarita. We spent countless hours in the foreign language lab in our headphones while listening to French dialogues and scripts. We conjugated verbs until the proverbial cows came home. But I still could not converse with a person in French other than saying hello, my name or goodbye. I probably can write it better than I can speak it because I understand the layout of the language which is like English as a Romantic language.
In college, I took a couple of French courses. One woman catered to those who sat close to her in the front of the room and spent most of her time teaching the French map. But when I left there, could I have a conversation in French? Non. However, I can locate cities on the map of France as I follow Beth Haslam’s journeys through the country. So, I should thank the teacher.
Years, hence, I was able to take a couple of free classes while teaching at Chicago State University in the early 90’s. I chose French and Modern Dance. My French instructor was a young woman from Senegal, and she too was steeped in the textbook version of learning the verbs. We loved her but I only had one semester with her. Perhaps if I had had more time under her instruction, my French would have taken off. Yet to no avail, I was not ready to have a conversation with anyone from France.
Eventually, someone realized the fact that the textbook versions of the language were not working. Not everyone was able to afford the Berlitz immersion classes so, finally conversational classes emerged. Aha, I thought. Later, while working as a librarian at South Suburban College, I took a Conversational French class. I really wanted to learn and stayed after work to further study French.
My instructor first reminded me that I was no longer to be addressed as Mademoiselle but would be called Madame due to my age, married or not. Great, I thought. That was a real confidence booster. Anyhoo, she did her best and I do recall us labeling furniture pieces in rooms on a graphic page to enhance our French vocabulary. She also spoke in French during class.
Her efforts were not lost because I did leave her class with enough confidence to go ahead and purchase a ticket to France when the opportunity presented itself. When I got there, I tried using the phrase, je voudrais (I want) at a McDonalds. They looked at me as if I was an alien that had just dropped down from Mars. They talked amongst themselves to figure out what to do. So, I resorted to pointing to what I wanted.
And that is how I spent the rest of my trip. I operated as a mute who pointed and spent a lot of time in my room. The man on the hotel staff tried to give me a lift and confidence booster and told me to at least try. I met another American who told me that she just pointed to what she wanted. We laughed. Luckily, the staff at the hotel and nearby train station where I got daily directions both spoke in several languages.
I took several stabs at the steak of learning French. I had a host of teachers who had limited time to share the language they already knew. I believe that living in a bilingual environment is the real answer to mastering another language. Or perhaps, teach it to the very young child because as the saying goes, It’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks!
November 23, 2022