The summer holidays are just seven weeks away. On Saturday, 3rd June, I shall sail for Cherbourg: a week touring the battlefields of the Western Front (with Juno Beach in Normandy and Dunkirk added to the First World War sites). Planning a trip by myself, I decided that there was a definite need to work on my French.
My only visit last year was an overnight trip to Marseille to watch the European Rugby Cup Final. It demanded a return flight to Lyon and a return TGV journey from Lyon to Marseille.
The journeying was not a problem, I could work out signs and read timetables and make basic requests. The embarrassment came with sitting opposite a chatty six year old French girl on the TGV. The girl delighted in telling me all about her school and her friends and her visit to Marseille (at least, that’s what I think she talked about).
I think I must have visited France thirty to forty times, if not more, often for three weeks at a time (in 2015, four visits meant spending five weeks in the country). How does anyone spend so long in the place and remain so poor at the language?
Perhaps it’s laziness, perhaps it’s due to having got off to a bad start. At primary school in High Ham, Miss Rabbage used to teach us basic vocabulary and phrases. At secondary school in Street, the teaching was good. I remember a language ‘laboratory’ where we each sat with headphones and microphones and repeated phrases we heard or tried to answer the questions that were posed. Miss Brooke, the French teacher, listened in to our utterances from a control desk, and offered individual advice via our headphones.
For fifty years ago, it wasn’t a bad start on a language. But then the asthma became severe and I was sent off to school on Dartmoor where French was not part of the curriculum.
A dozen years later, in 1986, when I went to France for the first time, I had forgotten almost everything that we had been taught.
Each summer, I would take out my copy of Living French by T.W. Knight M.A. (Oxon), first published in 1952 and excellent value in 1979 at £1.25, and make little or no progress. I could manage such sentences as ‘Madame Dubois a un joli chapeau,’ but not once did the opportunity present itself to comment upon local millinery
Last year, deciding I needed to make a more serious effort and embarked upon a Duolingo course. However, when the sentences included ‘I would like a pink polka-dot bra,’ I began to wonder how useful such a course might be if again confronted with a six year old girl on a train.