I’m An Adult Learning Dropout
It turns out foreign language is not my gift. Actually I knew this already, but I thought maybe there was hope. I was wrong. I began and ended my Beginners French Conversation class within 30 minutes and needed vodka after. And possibly therapy. The class didn’t end after 30 minutes, by the way. I literally got up and bolted.
I should have known immediately there was a problem. The instructor, a dignified Parisian man, told us right away that he would speak very fast and we would either “sink or swim” and that was the last English he spoke. So much for Beginners. Had I somehow stumbled into Advanced? The other students seemed to fall into two categories: those who had recently taken his Introductory class and were picking up right where they left off, and those who had lived in France, spoke virtually fluent French and only seemed to be there to mock and humiliate bottom-feeders lacking their skills. Then there was me. Although I have more than a decade of French classes from school and was once able to conjugate verbs in my sleep, this was the moment I realized it had been 24 years since I’d sat in a French class. Rusty doesn’t approach the term to describe my limited recall. Suffice it to say, I sunk like a stone.[SIGNUP]
Somewhere in the deep recesses of my gray matter lies a dormant treasure trove of French vocabulary. I know it’s there every time I read a menu in a French restaurant, or watch a film with subtitles. And the verb conjugation would come back quickly…I think. However, this brings us to the real problem, which I hadn’t given enough consideration to when I signed up: the difference between Quebecois French and Parisian. There is a big difference. Everything from the accent to the phrasing of questions and the actual words themselves vary from subtle to dramatic. Comparing my Canadian high-school French teacher to the man leading this class would be the equivalent of learning the English language from a London Cockney versus an American from the deep South. The dialects are wildly different. No offense to my Quebecois friends, but I’d prefer to learn Parisian French, since that’s where I’d probably use it. It’s just a way steeper learning curve than I’d anticipated.
This teacher was not the spoon-feeding type I was hoping for. In fact, he was kind of serious and hardcore. Nothing like all those light-hearted, really funny, warm French people you always hear about. Everyone in the class had questions fired at them. Not the “Quelle heure est-il?” I’d expected, but things that involved past or future tenses with nuanced descriptions about what I ate yesterday and what I’ll eat tomorrow. At one point when I had no clue whatsoever what he wanted to know (and naturally I was following a woman who had described in great length, what she ate, where she ate it and probably how it was prepared), I mentioned that I was having some difficulty with his accent. That’s when another genius woman laughed and called out, “That’s because he’s French!” I gave her a withering look and calmly explained that I was referring to the difference between Quebecois and Parisian. Bitch. I hadn’t encountered this level of humiliation since middle school.
I’m normally a good student, so it was humbling to be receiving looks of pity. After the third round of the French guy lobbing indecipherable questions about what could have been food or my car — I couldn’t tell the difference — I started to feel solidarity with the backpackers finding themselves accused of spying by Iranian authorities. I felt like a deer in the headlights, and my mind went blank. I didn’t just forget the limited French I knew, but I momentarily forgot English. I realized I was just not equipped for this class.
The teacher must have felt sorry for me, because he asked me in English if I even understood the question. That’s when I weighed my embarrassment quotient and decided I had nothing left to lose. I gathered my last shred of dignity, stood up and announced that I didn’t want to waste these people’s time any longer and would be leaving to go and register for the French for the Truly Retarded. (This is not to put down anyone with special needs, as I am the one who is truly retarded.) Then I came home at 10:15 a.m. in search of the Gray Goose — no, not last week’s pate, but the clear liquid in the freezer to drown my sorrows. On the plus side, I know for sure that you don’t need to actually speak French to order a bottle of wine in Paris. C’est bon! At least I qualified for a refund.