Une histoire d’amour
Like many children, especially boys, I didn’t pay much attention to French at school. I learnt how to order a coffee and croissant, but not much else. It seemed slightly effeminate, and the only times I could appreciate its value were those brief moments when the otherworldly beauty of the young female French assistants provided some hormonal motivation.
My epiphany happened later on. After finishing university I went to Africa to teach English and ended up teaching French-speaking students from countries such as la Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Benin and Burkina Faso. These students spoke French, English and usually another local language. One of my students took me to stay with his family in La Côte d’Ivoire and another took me to Togo. Suddenly French was not just a theory, not just another hour to get through at a school on the outskirts of a 1950’s housing estate on the outskirts of the city of Salisbury (a city where you were a foreigner if you came from Andover, about 15 miles away), it was something through which people expressed their anger, their happiness, and their desire.
It was fascinating to hear these francophone Africans joking and arguing in this language. When I was working and living at the English language school I would wake up to the beautiful sound of Patricia, a young Ivorian woman, singing French gospel songs as she hung out her washing in the adjacent courtyard. The memory still sends a tingle down my spine. Likewise, I remember hearing the songs which my students played at their endless parties and which I was desperate to understand. Fans of Zouk in the late 90s will be familiar with this Jocelyne Labylle song:
So it was Africa, its sounds and the warmth of its people which opened my ears to the French language.
I returned to the UK with the determination to learn French ‘properly’ so that one day I could I enter this linguistic world. I started an A-Level correspondence course. However, I soon found that the isolation and the required self-discipline meant that it was not for me. I then took private tuition which, whilst expensive, helped me improve. One year after having come back from Africa I set off for Paris with my Bindlestick to find a job and learn French.
Unfortunately, my quest foundered in less than a week. One of the problems was that I had overestimated my French language powers. I ended up a miserable, defeated figure wandering the streets of Paris with a stock of CVs and a stock of French phrases, the responses to which left me grinning with a pathetic embarrassed incomprehension.
However, I didn’t give up and about two years later I was ready to invade France again. This time I went with an agency which placed stagiaires with hotels and other businesses for periods of six months. Working and studying at same time helped me a great deal. I learnt the theory once a week and put it into practice the rest of the time. This environment of uninterrupted, unadulterated French was perfect for me to progress. I had French friends and work colleagues and friends from around Europe who were motivated by the same aim: to improve their French. Although I did not enjoy the work much (I don’t really enjoy working in any country!) I really enjoyed improving my French whether through conversing with people or through sipping an espresso in a cafe, whilst doing my homework and listening to the surrounding conversations. I was very dedicated and very determined, although my search for a French girlfriend was ultimately unsuccessful!
After my French sejour I came back to the UK feeling pretty pleased with myself (although I was not quite as good as I thought I was). I felt that I had ticked that box, bought that Eiffel tower t-shirt and now it was time to move on to a serious career. For the next 8 years or so I neglected my French. On the odd occasions it was called into action I tried to convince myself that the right attitude and demeanour would compensate for an increasing grammatical senility.
À la recherche du temps perdu
Three years ago I came to Manchester to start something of a new life and I realised that I wanted to rekindle my love affair with the french language. So je me suis mis à etudier, I took some French courses and found la belle langue more beautiful than even. Myself, on the other hand, was more than a little out of shape linguistically. However, it is my desire to win her back that drives me on in my quest to speak French dignement. Ce n’est pas évident!