Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Je ne parle pas le Francais*

I have always been fascinated by the French language and it was a long-standing desire of mine to learn it. When I was a kid I used to read umpteen Enid Blyton school stories taking place in English boarding schools. All of them invariably featured a French mistress often lapsing into French dialogues, which I really wanted to understand but could not. Little bits of French in some of the classics and in Agatha Christie novels made my resolution to learn French and understand what exactly the characters were talking about only stronger.

The first chance to turn my dream into reality came when I began my 11th grade. I had the option of choosing French as my second language. I almost did, but at the last minute decided that during the so-called "life-deciding" years of 11th and 12th, it was better to stick to the known devil, Hindi. And so the opportunity slipped through my fingers and my dreams of learning French were put into cold storage.

Fast forward seven years. I was now doing my masters and was about to begin my second year. I had already finished taking all the required courses and so, in the Fall quarter I had to just handle my TA and my thesis. When the Fall quarter registration began, I went through the schedule of classes to find out if there were any interesting extracurricular courses I could take. And my eyes fell upon "Elementary French - Level 1". Here, finally, was the opportunity I had been waiting for all my life! I immediately enrolled in it and awaited the first class with a mixture of excitement and apprehension.

The classes were to be held five days a week, just after lunch. For my very first class, in spite of my best efforts, I landed up a little late in class (my sense of direction is pretty pathetic and I used to get lost *every time* I had to go to a new building on campus). I quietly entered the class and slunk into a seat at the back of the class. The instructor, who looked very French, had written something in French on the board and was handing out the course syllabus, also completely in French. And to top it all, she chattered constantly in French. The unfairness of it all struck me. Here I was, attending a course ostensibly called "Elementary French" - and level one at that and there the instructor was, thinking, at least from the way she refused to use any English, that we were all French pundits. Whats more, while I gazed dumbly at the instructor, unable to comprehend anything of what she was saying, the rest of the class intelligently responded to her questions with either a "oui" (which, even with my almost non-existent French knowledge I knew meant "yes") or a "non" ("no").

Feeling more and more foolish as the minutes ticked by, I perked up when I finally heard English. The instructor, in broken English, asked "How many of you took French Level 1 here?". And I thought, "Level 1? Isnt this class level 1?" and closely examined my copy of the syllabus. And there it was, among all the French, two glimmering words: "Level 2". I had mistakenly come to the Level 2 French class instead of the Level 1 class which was why I couldn't understand anything! Relief flooded over me - I was'nt that dumb after all! Of course, after that, gathering all my belongings and getting out of the class ASAP was with me the work of an instant. I went back to my lab and re-checked my registration. Sure enough, I had registered for Elementary French - Level 2 by mistake.

After this harrowing experience, I thought of giving up the French-learning madness. However, I was still bitten enough by the French bug to feel that I ought to give a shot at attending the right class. So, once again, the next day, after lunch, it was time to go to class. This time around, my friend R, who did not find any other more interesting thing to do till his noon lab meeting, decided to sit through the French class with me. We both set off and again were late. Unfortunately for us, all the seats except the two at the very front of the class were taken. We both marched to it and sat down.

This class was slightly better - I could understand bits and pieces of what was happening. The instructor, a guy from a French-speaking part of Africa, still used a lot of French. But at least he interpsersed them with English phrases which was good. What was not good was the fact that R and me were right under his nose and hence got way too much attention. Considering that we knew almost nothing it was pretty embarassing.

The instructor made the class recite the entire French alphabet. Till date, I cannot say either the French "e" or the "u" properly. And guess which letter of the alphabet the instructor wanted me to say loudly so that the whole class could hear? Of course, "e". I wanted to dig a hole and bury myself into it. After a while, thinking we had sufficient practice with the pronounciation, the instructor called on various students and asked them to spell out their names. R was eventually picked on. With great confidence, in a clear, bell-like voice, R solemnly spelt his name,"R-S-T-U-V-W-X-Y-Z". There was stunned silence for a moment and then the whole class dissolved into laughter. What R had done was spell his name using the perfect English pronounciation while what the instructor had obviously meant was that R had to use the French prounciation. R and I looked at each other and burst into laughter too.

I dont remember too much of how the rest of the class went other than the fact that I spent most of it with my head buried into my notebook, trying desperately to stiffle my giggles. I have this habit of laughing when things go way beyond my comprehension and this really was one incomprehensible affair.

This time, when I returned from the class, I had very serious misgivings about the whole enterprise.I almost dropped the course. Then my friend M (who knows French), told me that French was not as hard as I made it out to be and strongly advised me to give a shot at learning it. I heeded her advice. The rest of the quarter turned out not be so bad after all. Initially, I went to my instructor's office hours to get extra coaching. It helped a lot, even though the instructor, for some reason, insisted on calling me "Anshara"! I also took genuine interest in learning and even picked up reference books from the library. Eventually, the whole thing went so good that I wound up taking Elementary French Level 2 the next quarter. Yes, this time I too could follow the instructor!

Maintenant, je parle le Francais! A little only - but still, yes, now I can speak French :-)!

* Je ne parle pas le Francais = I do not speak French


spark said...

very interesting. even i have been wanting to learn french for a looong time. class 11,12, college, work, bschool, ... lemme see if i do it next year. i can totally relate to this post.

Archana said...

Good luck with that :-)! My next goal is to visit France some day!

Saranya Kishore said...

:--) Good one.
Can you teach me some?
I am learning Italian from friends.

Shilpa said...

Je ne parle pas le Francais

Archana Bahuguna said...

Good that u finally did learn french :-).The best is when you have a friend who knows the language and you can practice verbally.
Also, I am sure u have heard many more versions of "Anshara" after coming to the US ;-).

Archana said...

Saranya, I will try to teach :-). This is a nice BBC French resource website:

Shilpa, as long as you continue with your Spanish its okay with me ;-)!

Archana, unfortunately I havent gotten to practice my French since I went to the class :-(. Hehe, that's true, I have heard a lot of versions of "Archana" :-)!