French: Its Part In My Humiliation

South London tried its hand at snow today (Sunday) without much success. The alternating snow-rain-snow combo isn’t going to work, weather-people. It did generate a little brolly-flattery as we walked Dog, with a passer-by calling out ‘nice umbrella’ to the Textiliste.

As happens at these moments the word ‘parapluie’ popped into my head. Umbrella in French, if you’ve not been keeping up. I love that word; there’s something delightful about it.

But as we walked on, in the sleety-mush, other memories of French and being taught it at school in the early 1970s crept back to me and, with it, a case of PHT. Public Humiliation by Teacher. I’m sure today’s educators have other tricks up their sleeves as part of their armoury – wit, debate, tazers… – but back then sarcasm was a staple method to encourage a pupil to work harder.

My Life In French has been a roller-coaster that mainly goes downhill at tremendous speed. I was gifted a problem, of course – naturellement – in my surname which has a soupçon  of the French about it. Can you spot it?

Le Pard?

Good. Well done, class.

The trouble is, I’m very much not French. There is none of this La Manche crap about my very English Channel, merci buckets. My ancestry has a French component, persecuted out of there in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. But the ability to conjugate ‘avoir’ with anything other than a grimace did not come naturally. Indeed, from talking to my next door neighbour in an early French lesson, circa 1969, I was made to write out the present tense of avoir 100 times. I will go to my grave hating that sodding verb.

When I reached the third form, I was placed in the ‘adequate’ set for French, somewhere below those stars who could sound out the French alphabet and just above those whose principle skill set meant they could mimic French farm animals with a convincing accent. And here began the humiliation.

I don’t know how it is done today but French back then comprised four elements: the spoken word eg the oral; dictation; French to English translation; and its counterpoint, English to French. Here are four examples from the years 1972 to 1974, covering each section.

English to French: in my mock O level, the short piece I had to translate included the sentence: ‘Father used his lawnmower’. Now, call me a fusspot but who in their right mind, aged 15, is going to know the English for lawnmower let alone the French. Tondeuse, if you are really interested, a word I now know off by heart as it was written – no, make that embedded – into my paper by a clearly irritated Peter Taylor, my less than patient French master. Now, give me credit; I don’t like to leave gaps so, in place of whatever the bloody word was I profferred coup de l’herbe which roughly translates as blow of the grass.  Mr Taylor gave me no leeway or credit for imagination.

Oral: I was seriously crap at speaking French, and my ear for the language is, still, less than sharp. So when, during one session I had to be told I could go, in English, you knew the writing was on the wall.

Dictation, or dicté: as above I never could work out what was being said. Every Thursday we had to listen to a French broadcast: ‘Ecoute Moi!’ and, for our homework, write out the same story in our own words. This challenge was beyond most of us, the best hope being to scribble down such of the phrases we could pick up during the lesson, and weave them into some semblance of a tale in the hope we were at least working in the same genre if not actually telling the same story. This particular week involved a policeman (Le Flic) warning a little old lady about some yobbos (les blouson noir). He told her: Don’t open the door to anyone. Now, as I listened I had no clue that what he was saying was: N’ouvrez la porte à personne. All I could do was have a stab. This led to the ultimate in PHT: a three exclamation mark marginal note and a call out in class that went something like this:

Taylor: Some of your attempts at this week’s homework were woeful. Pathetic

Class (sotto voce – note the wide linguistic skills I am now displaying): Some poor sod is about to get it

Taylor: What, for instance do you think this means (He begins to write on the board)

Class: Oh dear someone is really going to get it (many eyes scan room for likely victim)

Taylor: (having finished writing stands back revealing)

Nous Vrai La Porte A Personne

Taylor: So, Le Pard pray enlighten us on what this means? (He sniggered, a real snot inducing snigger). Let me see… Yours Truly The Door To Nobody perhaps? 

The sod knew – of course he did – what I meant. I wasn’t that far off. I was quite proud, in retrospect that I’d fished out the à personne from the alphabet soup I was wrestling with. But I wasn’t allowed to forget my howler. Pah!

French to English: at some point we had a passage to translate – I’d worked out the MP of the piece was by a river when, from his bag he extracted une canne à pêche. Even I can see, in hindsight, that the likely translation is a fishing rod but in the blurry panic that were French classes I latched onto the canne a little too enthusiastically and released into the wild corners of my paper the suggestion that he extracted a can of peaches from his bag, which he proceeded to toss into the river.  Why our hero should bring a tin of fruit all the way to the river only to throw it away did not occur to me – this was something in French and necessarily abstruse and perplexing.

For reasons I cannot now recall I took French to A level. Somehow I managed a B at O level but that was to be my peak. When the A level results came out I’d repeated my success at O level – in that I’d been awarded another O level, a gratuitous piece of rubbing-my-nose-in-dog-dirt compensatory marking that was handed out to those who passed every paper bar one – in my case the dreaded oral for which I apparently scored under ten per cent.

My lack of any linguistic abilities has not held me back. For sure I come across as half-witted when in any jurisdiction where English is not the first language.

But at least I was present when Mr Taylor had his comeuppance, courtesy of Melissa Courtney.

Melissa was in the same set as I was at A level and Taylor taught us occasionally. We were working on a piece of theatre that eventually saw the light of day as a school play and he was desperately trying to have Melissa say ‘feuille‘ – a difficult word to say in French – with just the correct inflection.

In those far gone days, I attended a trendy sixth form college and we sat in a semi circle using modern plastic chairs with a table that folded up at the side. When unfolded the chair/table combination did rather trap you.

Taylor, as was his wont, lent on the table and breathed the correct pronunciation into Melissa’s face. She tried to squirm back as far as she could. Poor thing had a slight disability in that, in certain circumstances her hip could dislocate. If it did she had no choice but to twist sideways and straighten her leg. Quickly.

Everything, at these moments, happens so fast but in fact seems incredibly slow. As her leg shot out, her heel – we were on trend for 1974 and she was wearing four inch stacks – buried itself into his groin. We couldn’t be entirely sure but, from his expression and the register at which his voice was subsequently pitched, it is a fair guess to say his testicles were rammed home, with much the same panache that one might see for the winning black at the end of a hard fought snooker tournament.

As he staggered back, I appreciated spoken French for perhaps the first time as the debollocked Mr Taylor used merde and foutre both in context and colloquially.

PS, for anyone who is French, speaks French fluently or at least reads it to  passable standard and you find errors and omissions here, all I can say is bully for you and keep your smart-arsery to yourself. There is no need for the facts to debunk a good story…

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published four books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars, Salisbury Square and Buster & Moo. In addition I have published two anthologies of short stories, Life, in a Grain of Sand and Life in a Flash. More will appear soon, including a memoir of my mother's last years. I will try and continue to blog regularly at geofflepard.com about whatever takes my fancy. I hope it does yours too. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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47 Responses to French: Its Part In My Humiliation

  1. I wouldn’t lose sleep over it, Geoff. There’s a whole silent majority of French people who are scared shitless about writing for fear of looking stoopid. Sometimes you have to write though, and in small ads you see some howlers. The name for a bungalow is plain-pied. The French not benefiting from the Raj had to think of their own word and plain-pied for most people conjures up a house rather like Baba Yaga’s hut. So, many people spell it plein-pied, or pleins-pieds if they want to be grammatically correct, because a house obviously has more than one foot, and they will all be full feet.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. tidalscribe says:

    I also love the word paraplui and it is more apt than ours, which originates from Latin umbra, shade, I believe. I wonder if any French people go around saying how they love the sound of UMBRELLA? We were just talking to friends yesterday, the American claimed the U3A teacher told him there was no hope of him picking up any French now, as he had never learnt, while his English wife would benefit from the French conversation class as her brain would retrieve her subconcious memories from school.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      I rather hope to keep some of those memories buried, in truth. Yes, it is odd what surfaces, at the strangest of times. It is never useful but endlessly fascinating – like finding a note under a sofa cushion only to realise they changed the notes ten years ago and it is now no longer legal tender…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Allie P. says:

    We saw a slight dusting as well, though it was gone by mid-day. I am always nervous attempting to use another language especially when a single word’s meaning can radically alter with the slightest incorrect mispronunciation. I have enough difficulties with English some days.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As Leonard Rossiter once said: “Excellente, por favor”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. gordon759 says:

    As usual a wonderful read brother. But you must remember that you were the better one where French was concerned (D at O level on the second attempt!). My personal highlight was describing a trip on a river in a rubber dinghy. My use of the English-French dictionary was such that the teacher happily asked me what I was supposed to be doing in a dirty pencil eraser!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. davidprosser says:

    I think we had the same French teacher Geoff, an absolute defeatist. Here I am not speaking French despite all his attention. To be fair though, he had a tremendous aim with a piece of chalk or a blackboard duster. Maybe he’s on the darts circuit these days. He did manage a small success in teaching me La plume de ma tante which I’ve never forgotten though never had a chance to use yet.
    Enjoy your week mon ami
    Hugs

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Juliet Nubel says:

    Okay, okay, okay I’ll keep my smart-arsery to myself, cher Geoff. But you’re better than you think. Didn’t I see a little French comment on my blog l’autre jour, monsieur? All you need is a six-month visit over here, a coup de baguette magique (no bread involved there) and you’ll be speaking like a native. Of which country I’m not sure… Btw I loved the can of peaches translation. Génial! Sorry. A bit of smart-arsery has got in here par erreur. Oops. My favourite French word is écureuil. Try saying that after an apéro or six… 🇫🇷

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      You are very generous to suggest I might acquire a late flowering linguistic skill Juliet but I think that might be confidence misplaced – I doubt the odds on fluency would be high anyway. And all smart-arsery is forgiven; I’m just very craven whenever I dabble in French, knowing I’m a small cedilla away from complete humiliation

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed your post. So glad Mr. Taylor got his just desserts.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Mary Smith says:

    Brilliant post, Geoff. Enjoyed Mr Taylor’s comeuppance.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. trifflepudling says:

    Ha ha, excellent and very amusing! I can see an error but will obey your command to keep my know-it-allery to myself.

    I have never forgotten your alternative pronunciation of ‘Balzac’ and wish I’d known it when I was at school trying to work out what Le Colonel sodding Chabert was about: it would have relieved some of the exasperation!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Ritu says:

    He he… I was an a grade French student… can still do a great accent. Played Mademoiselle in Daisy Pulls It Off… but couldn’t speak it now!!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Such a fun read, but with the name Le Pard, is there no trace of an accent in your DNA ??? Maybe it skips a century or two. Foreign languages were my favorite, came so easy to me. But so did analytic geometry, calculus…which makes little sense. p.s. Snooker tournament ???

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      Ah snooker is a big TV sport over here and the UK championships have been on this last fortnight. If you aren’t familiar it’s akin to billiards and pool only it has several red balls and then a series of coloured balls with the black being the last one to be potted as the most valuable.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I am damned impressed that the doll got a walk on a miserable wet day. Top marks! Regarding the snow, we may yet see some this year if we pop over to France to do a housesit!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. M. L. Kappa says:

    Bless you, Geoff, the can of peaches story had me laughing so hard tears were running down my face!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Anabel Marsh says:

    I got an A at A Level and I can’t speak French either. Must have been something about the teaching in those days! My worst humiliation was confusing loup (wolf) and loupe (magnifying glass). I will never forget either word but can’t imagine they’ll ever come in handy.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Mick Canning says:

    Ha! I failed my O level mock, so I reckon I sneak above you in the crap-French-speaking tables, Geoff!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Rowena says:

    Hi Geoff,
    I’ve wrestled myself away from my research project on Irish Famine orphans and the end of year festivities with the kids, to return to blogland tonight while I’m waiting for a cake to cook late into the night. It was so stinking hot here today and I couldn’t bake before 11.00pm without the fear of frying.
    I did French to year 12 and German to year 10. My fun was in the German class. We used to watch this German conversation series which had been filmed in the 1970s and by this point it was 1985. Being rather fashion conscious young ladies, we decided that the Germans fashion sense was quite ridiculous and I was quite surprised when I visited Germany in 1992 to find them very chic.
    German grammar was a beast. I was very pleased to escape.
    Hope you are going well.
    Best wishes,
    Ro

    Like

    • TanGental says:

      The Germans I know are v smart, though a lot of the men wear waistcoats with their suits which is very 1930s. Sorry you are broiling down under. We are freezing here which is probably right given the cricket.. groan… hope Christmas is good for the Newtons

      Liked by 1 person

      • Rowena says:

        My son has been thrilled with the cricket. Most excited. A Happy Christmas and New Year to all of you as well. We farewelled Dobby the first of the Kelpie pups to move onto their forever home and Yoda leaves tomorrow. They have great families to go to and it looks like we’ll keep in touch and the two pups could meet up for puppy playdates. We could well have made new friends.

        Like

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