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Faking French fluently

ONE of the questions on the form I was filling out read: ``Please indicate which languages you speak fluently.'' I thought of my year of Russian, the language tapes in Swedish and Italian, and two years of high school French. I read the question again and its clear-cut treatment of the ambiguous adjective ``fluent'' irritated me. What do you mean, fluent? Why not, ``What languages have you dabbled in?'' I decided that the two years of French were a long shot, despite the fact that I could probably order p^at'e de fois gras as well as anyone, that I no longer put an ``s'' at the end of plural hors d'oeuvre, could speak in reasoned tones about my b^ete noire or even my raison d'^etre. But fluent I was not.

And so I wrote into the space meant for a one-word answer, a short statement. ``My proudest accomplishment in the French language is a conversation I once had about a Jacques Cousteau expedition and the world's first underwater oil painter. ``Un homme qui peint sous l'eau.'' Ah oui. Pretensions.

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The circumstances surrounding the magnificent exchange have since grown somewhat blurred; overshadowed, perhaps, by the achievement itself. I was at dinner with friends, among them a visitor from Paris named Marie-Christine - a cousin of the notorious peintre-aventurier.

The two of us sat together, quickly falling into a repartee. We spoke at length of the d'ecor of the room, perhaps because missing vocabulary could be supplied by pointing. But while we were building a foundation of vocabulary, we were also building a rapport that eventually would lead to the sort of conversation one can only dream of in French I. Because when one speaks of underwater oil painters on Jacques Cousteau expeditions, it becomes necessary to speak of one's life philosophy. And when one discusses philosophy in French - well, can Sartre be far distant?

THERE are phrases which, dropped into a rambling conversation, might give one pause in one's own native tongue. When Marie-Christine turned to the subject of Philippe, said underwater oil-painting cousin (and I am 90 percent certain that this was indeed what she was talking about), I paused long to consider the plausibility of a young Frenchman with tanks on his back applying to a sodden canvas a m'elange of swirling colors that were, in Marie-Christine's words, tr`es magnifiques et bizarres. I decided to go with it. It would have been a field day for Matisse.

In short, it was a lovely conversation, rather like an avant-garde painting - strange in an ordered way. It involved no strain, perhaps because of our awareness of Marie-Christine's good English, which, though we chose not to use it, was always within reach.

But there have been other adventures in French conducted with less savoir faire.

I taught skiing in Switzerland for a winter, and my first class was a group of 10 French children around age 8. Skiing and French have a connection for me, since we used a sort of mock-French slang on our ski team at college, calling ourselves ``les chiens de la vitesse.'' When I think about it, I'm not sure what prompted us to be ``dogs of speed.''

Nonetheless, I had never tried to teach skiing in that language, much less try to deal en fran,cais with the glib-tongued guardians of children being sent off to ski school. I rounded up the class as quickly as I could, avoiding the last-minute questions of the parents and their puzzled looks at each other: ``Mais, il ne parle pas fran,cais ... q'est-ce que c'est, ,ca?''

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On the lift I studied a ski instructor's phrase book, memorizing a few handy (as well as not so handy) bons mots. The sunny afternoon went by, and I dare say the class was thoroughly entertained by their teacher. ``Faites attention!'' I would say, showing them something about bending knees or planting ski poles. ``Comme ,ca,'' I continued, showing them the right way, ``mais pas comme ,ca,'' showing them the wrong.

Other than that, I continually admonished them to snowplow, calling out ``Chasse-neige, chasse-neige!'' over my shoulder as I led them down the slopes. I found that they preferred this to my halting theory discussions of ``uphill and downhill ski'' (words I've happily forgotten).

It's true that I don't speak French fluently - not even close - but I have, nonetheless, a rich history with the language. With this in mind - what do I put on my r'esum'e?

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