OKA Cheese is rerunning a commercial on television that cracks me up every time I see it (copyright prohibits me from attaching a link). It shows a couple dining in what appears to be a quaint French-Canadian inn or restaurant overlooking the St. Lawrence River. The man asks the waiter for some more of that wonderful cheese “that’s dans my wife’s bouche”. It’s a joy to see someone speak French with the same level of proficiency I possess. After five years of agonizing French classes in high school and more than fifty years away from the classroom, I’ve discovered that the best way to convey myself in our second official language is to say everything in the present tense and if you can’t think of the French word, substitute the English one. At least I’m making the effort and somehow I’m able to make myself understood.
I clearly remember how I was so looking forward to learning French when I started high school. To have a second language is such a gift and to be given the opportunity to learn it free as part of our regular school curriculum was too good to be true. That was the beginning of five years of painful, punishing work on verb conjugations which is what I remember occupying most of our classroom time. Interestingly, I have a fairly good recall of obscure vocabulary (I can still remember the word chaumière which means thatched cottage – a word I have absolutely never been required to use, even in English!) but those relentless drills on verbs in every past, present, past-imperfect, future imperfect and other combination of tense left me permanently scarred and soured on learning the language.
More than fifty years after those dreadful classes and my teachers’ unflinching efforts at masochism, I still harbour a love of the French language and regret that I cannot speak it with any degree of fluency. During trips to France, however, I discovered that I can make myself understood perfectly well using the technique described above (everything in present tense), but I have a lot of difficulty understanding what is being spoken to me by those in command of the language. For any non-Boomers reading this, please take French in school, learn your verbs and do your homework. It’ll come in handy when you travel.
Whenever I travel to France (hopefully I’ll get there again before I croak), I always begin a conversation with “Parlez très lentement, s’il vous plaît, et utilisez des mots très simples”, but I still can’t grasp idiom or most verbs. I wish they’d placed more emphasis on conversational French during those five years in high school, and made the learning process more fun. Perhaps that would have made it plus facile pour moi de comprendre le français and I could then run for Prime Minister, or communicate in secret code avec mes French-speaking friends. Imagine the possibilities. If only I could conjugate those verbs that come out of ma bouche, who knows what path my life could have taken. In the meantime, passez le fromage s’il vous plaît. Merci beaucoup.