Learning French in lockdown is hard, largely because explaining what I did last weekend is incredibly dull

by learn a language journalist

“You said something about cauliflower, definitely something about cauliflower. He’s going to Paris… to buy some kind of special cauliflower?”

My partner looks at me blankly. I see her trawling back – in her head – through the video call she just had with her French dad, trying to figure out what repeated word I possibly could have mistaken for “choufleur”. She shakes her head.

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“I give up,” I say, throwing my hands in the air, “Lockdown could last until 2047, and I still won’t understand this language.”

Fifteen years ago, I got an A* in GCSE French. Having not studied it since, I’ve forgotten so much of it that I’m basically back to square un. And all I can remember doing at GCSE level – in the first place – was learning a bunch of phrases about what I did last weekend, off by heart. And I don’t think there’s a single French person in existence who wants to know what I did last weekend.

‘“I give up,” I say, throwing my hands in the air, “Lockdown could last until 2047, and I still won’t understand this language.”’ (Photo: Anthony Delanoix)

Either way, I left school with the ability to be boring in another language. And that is something I’ve been trying – with ever deepening frown lines – to claw back. Mostly, at the moment, by bingeing the new season of Call My Agent!.

Of all the curses of being English, monolingualism is among the most embarrassing. There’s always that gut-wrenching moment when you’re on holiday in France, or Spain, or Germany, and – having made your infantile little attempt at ordering a coffee in the local language – the waiter (perhaps looking slightly pained) replies to you in flawless English. If you ask, they’ll usually tell you they learned it at school, which really makes you wonder what other countries are doing right when it comes to teaching foreign languages, and what we have so wrong.

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Most likely, it’s just that post-colonial English arrogance at speaking a language that has been imposed on so much of the world, that you can basically waltz into any country shouting it loudly, and you’ll get by. Learning a foreign language is rarely seen as crucial in this country. In the middle of Lockdown Three, I’m unlikely to be travelling anytime soon. But my desperation to learn French has never been so intense.

I fantasise about downloading it into my brain, and suddenly being able to have livid French conversations about post-structuralism (note to self, also learn what post-structuralism is). Mostly though, I’d just like to have the option – were my partner and I to have a kid – for us to raise them bilingual. In the lowest estimate, 60% of the world’s population speak more than one language. And my monolingualism only serves to make my life on this Brexit-y little plague island even more estranged from the rest of the world.

Assaad BOUAB, Mimie MATHY, Camille COTTIN, Gregory MONTEL, Stefi CELMA,
‘I’m re-learning French largely by bingeing the new season of Call My Agent!’ (Photo: Netflix)

As a Brit though, the problem with learning French is that it’s somehow viewed as a “fancy” language. Maybe it’s a call-back to the chunk of history where French was the language of English royalty, maybe it’s the pedestal on which we put French cuisine; whatever it is, speaking French is something that’s been committed to the public consciousness as very oh là là. Very Frasier Crane. Which is actually pretty ironic, seeing as France famously rounded up all it’s oh là là people in 1789, and decapitated them.

Butchering of the aristocracy aside – unlike any other I’ve tried to learn, I have a real shyness around speaking French. When in France, I can be in a café, asking where the toilets are, and I’ll clam up as if I’m a simple peasant, unworthy of besmirching this refined language with my filthy English tongue. I once tried explaining this feeling (in English) to some of my partner’s French family, who were all completely baffled.

“How can a language be fancy?” they said. Meanwhile, last night – in perhaps my most Covid nightmare to date – I had to explain to someone, in French, why vaccines are safe.

This content was originally published here.

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