Speaking French when you can’t speak French

I studied one semester of French when I was in Year 8 (40 years ago; a fact I am struggling to come to terms with) and one semester of conversational French at university as a fill-in subject because the subject I wanted to do was fully subscribed. These efforts have not equipped me to travel for 5 weeks in France. I am very confident with the following phrases:

“Je m’appelle Jean Cluny. Voici mon ami, Anne.” (Year 8, lesson 1)

“Il pleut” (university)

“Champagne, s’il vous plait.” (essential skill in any language)

This will not help me order an Uber, ride on the Metro, buy anything other than Bollinger, or save me from the scorn of Parisians as I butcher their language. Anecdotal evidence from well travelled friends is that giving it a go is appreciated by the French, and that shouting at them loudly in English is not the way to win friends and influence people.

So now, with six weeks to go, I am in intensive French language acquisition mode. Trouble is, I have a not very good ear for languages. I feel a bit like Joey Tribbiani in the Friends episode where he was auditioning for a role where he had to speak French, and failed parlously, to the dismay, then frustration, then rage of Phoebe. The difference between he and I, however, is that I am very aware of my inability to hear and reproduce the beautifully soft and nuanced vowels of the French language.

Enter my sister, cape flying. She not only has an excellent ear, but studied French at university, and lived in Paris for a year studying French literary theory and jurisprudence. (She’s a genius) Lessons start next week and I am placing deep faith in her ability to teach me the essentials and for me to acquire at least the capacity to order food, and thank my Airbnb hosts. In the meantime, a phrase book is on order and a translation app is downloaded. All I then need is coquettish charm and I’m all set.

Image credit: Léopold-Émile Reutlinger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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