(*) que dalle: Zilch! Nada!
|Louis de Funès (Le Gendarme à New York)|
La leçon d'anglais (the English lesson)
Last week, I instructed my France travel workshops in the Seattle area. During the (sold out) morning class, "Survival French for the Traveler," thirty brave souls stayed with me for three hours and alternately laughed; frowned; cried; as they struggled with the basics of la langue de Molière (French.)
Even though I taught participants many simple words and expressions that would enable them to ask and answer basic questions in French, we all knew the following would come in handy at some point:
- Parlez-vous anglais? (Do you speak English?)
So do they? Do the French speak English? You would think so, but...
If you ask, you are likely to elicit any of the following reactions:
- "Pfffff... [insert infamous French shrug.]
- "I speak que dalle!" (see above)
- "I speak English comme une vache espagnole! [like a Spanish cow]" (Don't ask!)
... Or even a straightforward, adamant, "Non!"
What seems to be the problem? The problem is that the French have convinced themselves they are not good at foreign languages. When your teachers (and your parents) spend years drilling into your head the necessity to speak the French language just so; when you spend countless hours learning complicated grammar and spelling rules; when your biggest fear is to... make a mistake; you simply can't take the risk to do this all over again in a foreign language. Oublie. Fuggedaboutit.
What adult wants to look like a perfect idiot, an incompetent fool, even if stranded American tourists need his help?
And don't even think about waving a picture of that guy in their face! Who does he think he is? Their old French teacher (minus the sense of style?!)
It's not the Frenchmen's fault, really. Teaching methods in France's English classrooms have often been described as antiquated. Part of the problem was that unfortunate students had to learn by heart perfectly u.s.e.l.e.s.s. expressions.
The most famous one: "My tailor is rich." Let it sink in. My tailor is rich.
Have you ever tried using this casually in an informal conversation?
- A Seattle local, to French Girl in Seattle, circa 1996: "You know, French Girl, here in Seattle, we wear fleece year round; none of those chi-chi fabrics you brought with you from Paris."
- French Girl: "Thank you for letting me know. I will remember to adjust my expectations - and my wardrobe - to my new life. It is a really good thing my tailor is rich. Or he will be, when he is done lining up all my clothes with fleece..."
The inadequacies of foreign language instruction in my homeland are showcased in Le Gendarme à New York, a movie in the popular Gendarme series, starring France's acting legend Louis de Funès. In this specific scene, Maréchal des Logis Cruchot (Sergeant Cruchot) bullies his men into learning a few handy English expressions before they all fly to the United States to attend a gendarme convention. Cruchot is his usual twitchy, impatient, and unfair self, as he berates his men and showers lavish praise on his boss, Adjudant Gerber (Sergeant Major Gerber,) who can do no wrong.
One can only imagine how long the poor gendarmes will survive in rough New York neighborhoods (this was 1965!) using the expressions on the blackboard...
Even if educational methods have improved, the stigma remains: The French are not good at foreign languages, especially English.
Why would the average Frenchman feel bad about it? Isn't the example supposed to come from above?
Watch Le French Prez' François Hollande as he attempts to speak English (a few seconds will suffice.) Oh, la, la...
Then again, American President Barack Obama does not do much better on an official visit to France. Watch him fumble through the French motto, "Liberté, égalité, fraternité..." Oh, la, la...
Obama is a smart guy. Why didn't he ask bilingual actor Bradley Cooper to prep him for the speech? Mystère...
Let us cut Barack some slack. After all, foreign languages are not taught at all in most American secondary schools...
British stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard demonstrates that antiquated teaching methods are widespread. If you are a student of the French language and have ever wondered if you would be able to use the material taught in class in real life, you will enjoy this...
So what is the answer? We can't expect locals to speak our language (they are too embarrassed.) Our own communication efforts have to be limited to asinine and useless expressions (thank you, foreign language teachers of our youth.) How utterly depressing. Should we just use hand signals and grotesque faces à la Louis de Funès?
Maybe not. There is still hope. A new generation of teachers, materials, and students has emerged. Watch this heartwarming video of two adorable French kids, learning English at home on mom's computer. Bravo, les enfants. That's the spirit (What do you think, Bradley?)