Growing up in Asia a long time ago, I had become conversant in languages (Pilipino, English, Spanish and a local dialect) but being multilingual was a matter of fact. My private school classmates were just as fluent as I was in the three main
languages and many of my relatives as well. It was, really, no big deal. Until I immigrated to the U.S. It was a gift that presented itself in social and professional situations and garnered admiration and questions. And I was/am pleased.
Then France became a reality. And despite the Latin foundation and the much touted relation to Spanish, French was unfamiliar and difficult. A business colleague once asked me why we purchased a house in a country where I
do not speak the language. “Because I needed an incentive to learn it,” I retorted. And so I had to learn. Despite the many lessons – formal, private, independent, -- I struggle to understand and to speak. My
confidence has improved over the years not necessarily because my working knowledge of the language increased at every visit but because I have used facial expressions and hand motions to supplement my meager vocabulary.
When I greet people
as the custom requires, the response I receive is seldom a bonjour or ça va alone but much, much more. Sometimes I get it, sometimes I do not. When the latter happens, I try to sense the tone to search for meaning. Then I can express
awe, dismay, surprise or sympathy by facial expression and hand motions– like a mime, perhaps. I don’t know if these expressions relate to the communication at hand but it seems to satisfy people. Either that or they give up and move
on with a smile.
And when I can speak French, I still get many words wrong. Early on, at one of the Narbonne restaurants in the town center, we had become familiar faces to the pregnant waitress and she was clearly delighted whenever
we came by and had lunch. So, after a few visits, I inquired whether she was expecting a femme (woman) or homme (man). She looked at me, eyes twinkling, and quietly said, “C'est un garcon, madame.” Then she rushed to the
kitchen presumably to share the story with the cook and/or burst into a laughing fit. But we are still welcome and she is still delighted to see us. Her boy is now about 3 years old, I think. Clearly a “garcon.”
The other day, I saw one of our local doctors so I asked her whether I can see her at the clinic. She said, “cabinet.” I replied, “non, le clinique.” She shook her head and said again,” Appelez-moi à
la cabinet.” And she gave me her mobile number. So when we got home, I checked the dictionary. Viola! “Cabinet” is office and “clinique” is a private hospital. Glad she corrected me or I would be
telling the girls’ teachers that I’m taking them to the private hospital for a TB vaccination. And they would be wondering why when there’s a doctor’s office a block from our house.
I also make
a common mistake. Using English words and adding –“er” at the end to make them French. When we start packing up the house and preparing to leave, neighbors would ask where we were going. I often replied, “nous retournons
dans les États-Unis” instead of “nous revenons dans les États-Unis.” Retourner being close to the word “return” but actually is a verb that means to turn inside out or turn over. I sometimes wonder why
they would ask me the same question every year; perhaps it’s to remind me to get it right.
The girls and I take all the confusion and challenge in stride. But husband will have none of it. His strategy is to grab
one of us to act as interpreter/translator or to escape when he sees a neighbor or someone approaching to engage him in a conversation. Sometimes even to just say hello. So many times when I am in the top (third) level of the house, cleaning or
packing, I hear a shout to come down. Thinking it was an emergency or someone looking for me, I would rush down the circular stairway hoping not to tumble only to find my husband in the ground floor, motioning to the open door, and whispering,
“The neighbors are outside.” Mais oui, it is their street, too!
It is a beautiful language, though. And I am privileged to have this ongoing opportunity to learn and improve it. Someday, I will
definitely count French as my fourth spoken language. Writing, however, is another matter for another time.