Breaking The Language BarrierMy decision to teach French happened by accident really. I had a call from a friend who had artisans on site and both sides were having trouble understanding what was required. I was happy to help but after I’d gone I was flattered to find the builder thought I was French. When my friend understood this, he said ‘Why don’t you teach it? It would really help me and I can think of several other people who would really value it too’.
The problem was they had been having French lessons from a French ex-teacher who insisted that the best way to proper French was via translations of excerpts from French literature. All very well-meaning but not much use when you wanted to make yourself understood in the chemists. So that’s how it started. And I now have classes for both beginners and more advanced pupils. Mostly English but also some Dutch.

In fact it is amazing just how different written French is from spoken French. Much more so than English. There’s even an entire verb tense in written French, common enough to be found in newspapers, that is never used in conversation. In fact if you want to improve your conversational French by reading you’re probably better off reading those BD, bandes dessinées or comic strip books so beloved of the French because the speech bubbles really do represent spoken French in a way that books and newspapers don’t.

Unfortunately our textbooks are not always all that reliable either. There are still some that will tell you the French for a bicycle is une bicyclette whereas that word ceded its place to un vélo quite a long time ago. Similarly we were often taught that the usual way to ask questions is to change the statement Vous avez the other way round to Avez-vous? In fact the most common way of asking a question in French is by raising the voice at the end of a statement. Vous avez du pain? Have you got any bread? Which, when you think about it, is much easier!

One of the things we try to cover in our lessons are the traps that lie in wait for us as our confidence improves and we feel able to express ourselves more freely. Like the student who explained to the woman at the supermarket check-out that her husband had (temporarily) disappeared; Mon mari a disparu she confidently asserted, without realising that the most common meaning of disparaître in this context is as a euphemism for ‘dying.’ When we hear on the news that quelqu’un a disparu it means they’ve died! The hôtesse de caisse in the supermarket was initially quite upset until she realised the disappearance was only temporary!

We try to have as much fun as we can while we work as it makes learning more enjoyable and often easier. Sometimes it can have interesting ramifications. I remember a few months back explaining how useful the word coup was, and just how many colloquial expressions use it. I even mentioned you could talk about un coup de rouge meaning a ‘shot’ of red (wine). Flushed with this knowledge a couple of my lady students thought they’d try it out in the local café much to the merriment of the waiter. What I’d omitted to tell them was that that particular expression wasn’t very ladylike! More the sort of thing you’d expect Jean Reno to say while he was propping up the bar! But we had a good laugh about it the following week.

Grammar is an essential part of learning a language as an adult because without it you don’t have the building blocks to say what you want to say. Sometimes French grammar can seem almost perversely complex compared with the relative simplicity of I run, you run, he runs, we run, you run, they run. But before we get too smug about the fact that in English we don’t have to worry too much about this or about masculine and feminine, think what it must be like to try to explain to the French what to come by, to come over, to come up with, come-uppance, bit of a come-down, come round to thinking and the rest means, once they’ve grasped the meaning of the verb to come!

Anyway if you live in or near the southern Lot and would like to discuss your French learning needs do give me a call. And the first assessment lesson is free.

© Ben LENTHALL

Tel: 0565 24 93 49

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