The French Challenge

It’s wrong. I live in a bilingual country. I have written books and newspaper columns and yapped across the country one way or another about Canada’s history and politics and yet I don’t speak French. It’s also embarrassing. It’s the embarrassment that finally moved me to action.

Our daughter and two grandchildren live close by and have made up our tiny bubble since the pandemic began. When Ontario’s schools did not reopen after Christmas, my wife and I offered to help our daughter continue to work from home by having our grandchildren at our place every day to support them through their online learning. It was much harder than we anticipated. The grade 7 and kindergarten teachers did their best to keep them engaged while providing lots of asynchronous activities and assignments. The kids are fun and polite but keeping up with them was taxing.

The real problem was that both are in French immersion. My wife speaks French moderately well. But first thing Monday morning I was reminded of having stupidly quit French after earning a dismal mark in Grade 9. I was stuck asking a five-year-old if she could please translate for me so I could help her to properly draw the penguin.

By the end of the first day my decision was made. I want to speak with my grandchildren. I need to learn French. But how? Sorry, comment?

I found You Tube ripe with people willing to teach me French. After dismissing a few intense men and a far too chirpy millennial, I chose Alexa. She’s great. Alexa offers short lessons that move so slowly that even I can follow along. She assumes I know nothing which, sadly, is true. Alexa is fun because she seems to edit nothing so you see her flub a line, laugh, and try it again. It makes her human while allowing me license to mess up.


I have always admired people who speak more than one language. My first weeks of lessons had me admiring them more. Who knew, for instance, that in speaking French I have to know if a bank or banana are masculine or feminine? Who decides such things? Is there a committee somewhere in Paris? Has the women’s movement or Me Too changed any of its decisions? And what about giving me a reliable rule so I have at least a fighting chance of remembering – such as if a word ends with an “e” then it’s feminine. But, of course, that would be too easy. It only works about 75% of the time. It’s like the English “i” before “e” spelling rule that has so many exceptions it’s a wonder anyone ever noticed the pattern in the first place.

And who decided that the French language would have four distinct ways of saying something as simple as, for example, the word “the?” And who decided that a French speaker can sometimes throw a “t” between words that means nothing but somehow someone decided makes the sentence sound better? I will confess to asking Alexa some rather pointed questions. But she’s patient. When she says this next part may be little tricky, it means that I will be devoting the rest of the day wrestling with its baffling contradictions. I desperately try to understand rather than memorize. Alexa forgives me…I think.

I’m learning slowly. The kids are back at school now and so I’ve got more time with Alexa. Both kids giggle at my pronunciations and tell me when I say something that makes no sense at all. They do their best to help. It’s actually fun that they get to teach me something that, we all know, they will always be better at than me. Wish me luck. Sorry, souhaite moi bonne chance.

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7 thoughts on “The French Challenge

  1. I always wanted to speak other languages. When I was a kid, we had this giant dictionary of words with 6 different languages at home that I read regularly. I was one of the top French students in high school and added Latin and German as I progressed. I took French at University. Sadly we were NEVER taught to speak French but. only to read and write it (ditto for German).

    I was compelled to take Latin — the guidance teacher telling us at the Grade 8 transition meeting that it would help if we were going to take German. I embarrassed my mother in the meeting when I challenged this! lol In grade 12 I asked to drop Latin but was told my marks were too high. So I failed the Xmas exam. Still do not know how I got 35%. I must have thought that I shouldn’t make it too obvious. When the results were released I was called to the office and told that I now had a spare at the time of the Latin class. I remember the Latin teacher in grade 10 saying that Latin was useful to know because if we traveled to other countries we could get a priest to translate conversations in the language of that country.

    My daughter and her family live in Switzerland and my grandkids (7 and 5) effortlessly speak perfect English, French, and Portuguese (their father and nanny speak Portuguese). There were times when they came home after nursery school with German words.

    When visiting them, I sometimes explain to Swiss folks that “Il y a cinguante ans depuis j’etude la Francais.” My daughter then says “It shows!” She then laughs at me!

    I seemed to know as a young person that language was part of how we learn to think and different languages involve thinking in different ways. I have studied the rudiments of Spanish and Portuguese for those trips to countries where those are the main languages but sadly it does not seem to stick for long!


    • I wish I valued learning another language when I was in high school. I wish I could time travel and bat myself in the head with a few bits of advice, this among them, but my teenage me would probably have dismissed the old me. Winter can’t warn the spring.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi John,
    I applaud this new goal and have no doubt that you have already made great progress and will continue to do so. Given your musical talents and inclinations, I have a few specific suggestions to improve your pronunciation, syntax (flow), and vocabulary – while having fun. When I was a teenager, I had a double album by a Quebecois band that I listened to endlessly!! Hours and hours of listening and paying careful attention to figure out how the words on the lyric sheets corresponded to the sounds I was hearing. It was baffling at first but I know that it really helped me to get a better sense of how to make myself “sound” French.
    I’m sure there are great examples closer to home, ie. Canadian /Quebecois singers, but since I lived in France for a few years when I was developing my fluency, I am more familiar with singers and songwriters from France. If you are not already familiar with them, check out the music of George Brassens and also Jacques Brel. Their songs are works of art – true poetry – and their diction helps with comprehension and makes it easier to sing along and imitate the sounds you are hearing.
    Let me know how it goes! Hey, you may be adding some of their songs to your playlist for gigs before long!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi John,
    I am glad to read that you have taken up the challenge of learning French! I agree with Louise that listening to music is a wonderful way to attune your ear to the intonation of the language. I always used songs in my French classes for that reason as well as a means to learn new vocabulary. Here are a few recommendations that you might enjoy:
    Michel Rivard (folk) Album: Le goût de l’eau
    Harmonium (kind of a Moody Blues 70’s group, very popular in Quebec) Song: Pour un instant
    Coeur de Pirate (Pop) Song: Oublie-moi ( your grandkids may like this)
    Charles Aznavour (Frank Sinatra of France!) Album: Ses plus grands succès
    Beau Dommage (Folk/Rock another big group from the70’s-80’s) Songs: Harmonie du soir à Châteauguay, Les Blues d’la Métropole
    You can find the lyrics (les paroles) on line (as you are no doubt aware). If you get to a point where you want to practice your French, I facilitate a French conversation group on Tuesday evenings for intermediate level speakers. It is a very casual, low stress and fun environment.
    Bonne chance avec le français!

    Liked by 1 person

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