Sunday, 18 January 2009

French as he is spoke

These days, on the rare occasion when I haven't got some part of my anatomy stuck down a waste pipe or in a hole in the floor (plumbing never was quite my can of beans), I'm often to be found somewhere on the premises waving my arms around, making strange shapes with my mouth and chanting the same syllables repetitively at loud volume. This is called Working on John's French.

Because I went to a so-called 'high-flying' girls' grammar school (we wore berets and boaters and weren't allowed to eat in the street. We were also taught that we were better than anyone else, which is a difficult one when it finally comes home to you that you're not), I learned French from good teachers - often native speakers - from the word go, so I managed to get myself a pretty decent accent even before I spent time working here. John wasn't so lucky. For reasons presumably best known to themselves, his parents sent him to a small private school in Salisbury which was frequented by other boys from farming families and run by the kind of teachers (and I use the term loosely) who couldn't get any other sort of work anywhere else. He tells me that French was indeed on the curriculum for a couple of years, but the only word he knew when I first met him was cocorico. Cock-a-doodle-doo. Hmm. 

John's been ploughing away at learning the language ever since we decided to move here, and especially since we arrived. He goes to a session at the Resto du Coeur, an association that works in all sorts of ways with disadvantaged and disempowered people of all kinds, where volunteer tutors - including our friend and neighbour who has made a bit of a personal project out of John's French! - work with with immigrants for whom French is a second language. There, he's part of an eclectic group which includes a Punjabi Sikh, an Afghan, an Italian, a Vietnamese, several Moroccans, and one other English person. He's already got a decent enough vocabulary, and a reasonable amount of grammar. But, you know, when you're of a certain age, it's tough: your vocal cords are, quite literally, set in their ways, and producing sounds you've never made before is much more difficult than it is when you're eleven. And when you come originally from Wiltshire, then lived for nearly 30 years in Birmingham, and have a tendancy to make two vowel syllables out of every one, it's even worse ... 

The problem is that French - even our local heavily accented French - is spoken phonetically, with vowel sounds that are very clear and distinct and with a particular 'music' that is very different from the much more monotone and mumbled English language. Watch an English person - especially a southern English person - speaking their native language, and you'll see that very often their mouth barely moves. Problem. French requires a much more mobile mouth, which is physically tiring and which, quite frankly, many adult learners find embarrassing. Because they're embarrassed, new speakers often half swallow their words instead of projecting them forward in the French way. Problem compounded.

It's not just about getting it right for getting it right's sake: it's about being understood, for what might sound to us like a miniscule shift in a vowel sound often produces a completely different tense or even a different word, and a blank look. So we've been doing some speech therapy. 

"ai  u  i" I say, loudly, from one end of the room, making an arm movement along with each sound to help anchor it.

"ay-ee  oo  eee-ee" John replies, doing his best to be a ventriloquist.

Me: "est".  John: "ay-yi". 

Me: "bouteille".  John: "bootoiee".

And so on. Endlessly, until his reluctant vocal cords and mouth muscles give in gracefully. Until the next session.

It's getting easier. But after - well, let's just say quite a lot of years of saying sounds one way, it's a bit like a piece of elastic that gets stretched, but then jumps back into default position as soon as you let go. Hence the arm movements, which are a bit of a bodily trick - a way of anchoring the sound physically so that the body, not the brain, is in charge of remembering.

So should you be around and about Grillou or Saint Girons or even Toulouse, and see a middle aged man walking round waving his arms, making faces and yelling vowel sounds, don't be alarmed. No need to call a doctor, or the emergency social services. It's just John, in mid session. 

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