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.

(Photo: tinytap.it)

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.

(If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others and check out my other work at johnboyko.com)