Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Journey Back to Quebec: Part II, How to Recover Four Years of Forgotten High-School French in Four Days

My last post ended with Monsieur Magpie and me hightailing it for the Canadian border, singing, "We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout.  We been talkin' 'bout Jackman ever since the fire went out . . ." at the top of our lungs.  Once we'd made it over the border though, the singing stopped and the serious practice began.  One of the many painful truths we have accepted after twenty years together is that our combined knowledge of the French language puts us at about the level of a five-year-old native speaker.  This isn't such a good thing when one considers that between us we have studied eight years of high-school French.

Interestingly, too, we each have very different sets of skills.  Todd knows his verbs--how to conjugate, how to use tenses, how to string them together to show actions that happened yesterday or that might happen tomorrow.  I, on the other hand, have managed to maintain a large store of nouns and other vocabulary words in the old metal file drawers of my brain.  I can tell you that la bougie means the candle (or the spark plug), but I can't quickly tell you to blow la bougie out before it catches the curtains on fire.  Needless to say, after two decades of studying, teaching, and making a living as a writer, I know which tools are most important to have at one's disposal when communicating.  It's easy to look up a noun in a dictionary, but the ability to craft a sentence that makes sense is not so simple.  Todd is thus a much faster and more fluent French speaker than I am.  I, with my brain for minutiae and lists, fumble along, spouting nouns and colorful adjectives, and gesticulating wildly.  I do sprinkle in a verb or two from time to time, but my sentences lack any sophistication.

So, what to do about this problem?  

For us the answer was--and is--simple.  Dive right in and talk.  So talk we did.  We had conversations both long and short with locals everywhere we went, and we found that every single person we met was more than happy to talk with us.  Armed with a pocket dictionary and a book of common phrases, we spoke as much French as we possibly could.  We also asked countless questions about words, expressions, and turns of phrase.

I found that the more I spoke, the more I wanted to speak . . . and to listen.  Whether discussing medieval illuminations with the owner of one of the best pen shops I've ever visited, Quebec politics with a fantastic graphic artist, or great local neighborhoods with a man we met on the street, I loved listening and discovering new nuances of this beautiful language along the way.  By our fourth and last night there, we didn't need to resort to any English when we chatted with our waitress at Chez Victor (the best burger place ever, including veggie burgers).  It sounds silly to be excited about speaking very basic French at a restaurant, but the fact that she didn't automatically switch to English as soon as she heard our American accents was heartening for us.  Many folks will politely shift over to English if they know that French is hard for you, but we learned that if we asked them to use French with us, most people were happy to help us stumble along.  

As an American who loves talking with people visiting my country, it was a thrill to meet so many like-minded folks in Quebec.  It was also a thrill to think so hard every day that my head hurt.  Even when Todd and I were just talking to each other, we tried to speak in French as much as possible.  Now that we're back in the U.S. we're still at it, messing around with sentences and looking up words.  

I kick myself for being such a lousy student all those years ago in high school.  I couldn't be bothered to learn the language of my own heritage, my father's first language, and one that carries me back to some of the best memories of my childhood.  The motto of Quebec province, which can be found over the main entrance to the Parliament building and on every Quebec license plate, is something one can't help but feel, especially within the stone walls of Vieux Quebec.  Je me souviens.  The French may have lost to the English on les Plaines d'Abraham in 1759, but this is a deeply French place.  It endures.  Et quand je suis à Québec, je me souviens aussi.


  1. Dearest Gigi,

    What a joy to see the rooftop of Le Château Frontenac (oops I figured I'd forgotten the t in my previous post's comment)...
    It made my day to virtually be back at this lovely city.
    Oh, if you only could have stayed for over a week, you French would become more and more fluently! Whenever I did training in Mexico at the six different locations for the company, my first day was not the best. Whomever got me first, didn't get the best part of me... Towards the end I was fluent again, ansering questions without having to look into my grab-bag for words in order to compose a sentence. It is true, your head hurts and at night I've always been exhausted when speaking a foreign language for my training. And I better speak correctly since errors on a multi-million-dollar plant would cause big consequences. It never is easy to switch between six foreign langugares but I did it and with a lot of joy.
    But you were right too, dive right into it. People always will help you if they sense that you're initially struggeling.
    I bet you will go back more often and sooner than this second trip!
    Love those doors with the fleur de lys...
    Have a lovely week and thanks for showing these lovely pictures to me and all readers. But to me it means a lot.


  2. Six languages, Mariette! You are amazing. And I'm so glad that you enjoyed the virtual journey to Quebec.

    xoxo Gigi

  3. Dearest Gigi,

    Six foreign languages that is; English is not my native tongue either. Dutch is my mother tongue so that makes seven...
    It is seven times a widow to the world! The richest experience there is for being able to read, communicate with so many other cultures, nations.
    Plus a LOVE for people!

    Love to you,


  4. Dear Gigi,
    I know exactly how you feel. My French is even more basic than yours but, I always try and I usually get by. My husband doesn't speak any French but our son is brilliant at languages as is our daughter.
    Your photographs are beautiful.....they have made me put it on my places to visit list. XXXX

  5. These photos are MAGICAL, Gigi! *SWOON*... Love your French conversations. It was the same for us nearly 3 years ago when we were stuck at Charles du Gaulle airport in Paris for 18 hours due to bad weather in Europe...My old high school French was challenged that's for sure. I loved French in school, it's such a wonderful language. And I can still read it pretty good. But speaking... oh, dear... LOL! My husband knows German, so that didn't get us far. But we did OK. ;o) I admire your gumption! Thanks for taking us on this extra trip with you. I have to back and look at these photos again! Happy Days, my friend ((HUGS))

  6. I speak English and fluent Pig Latin. Does that count? ;0)
    Kudos to you for working so hard at the language on your trip. I have tried to learn several languages but failed miserably each time. I dream of speaking Italian or French so I can take dreamy vacations some day.
    Lovely pics. Thanks for the peek into your holiday.

  7. Wow, your photos are so gorgeous. I definitely want to visit this beautiful place, someday! Thanks for sharing your visit with us - it's the next best thing to being there! Have a beautiful week, sweet friend! xxoo :)

  8. Great photos, now I wanted to visit there. Oh how I wish I had taken French. I took French for travelers a couple years ago, but all of a sudden the Spanish I took in high school popped out of my mouth. Now where did that come from, I asked myself. Good for you for keeping it up now and using it when you traveled.

  9. Congratulations on using your French. I still have rather passible French language skills, but no where to practice. Note to self: schedule six months in Paris.
    Thanks for sharing your vacation--and the super photos. Mary

  10. Excellent site, keep up the good work my colleagues would love this. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment  to say I’m glad I found your blog. beach condos


Thank you so much for visiting and for taking the time to leave a comment! I love hearing from you.