Thursday, April 07, 2005


Ma tante est une poisson ferme

As if I weren't already demanding too much of my seriously overtaxed neural networks, I have signed up for French lessons. Ours is an officially bilingual country, and I've reached a point in my government career where I need to achieve at least rudimentary second language skills. Plus, they pay you an extra $800 a year if you can pass the test every five years. In 2000, I managed to convince them I was of sufficient linguistic mediocrity to be classified of intermediate ability, but with two full years of maternity leave under my belt since then, my second language skills have slipped to at least sub-par, if not abyssmal.

So for four hours each week, I sit in our little class of eight, struck dumb in both senses of the word and unable to form a coherent thought in either official language. French class has become a lesson in humility perhaps long overdue.

How can I say this without sounding horribly conceited? I'm used to being -- to being just a little bit smarter than the average bear. I'm used to being ahead of the curve, and I'm used to finding learning easy. I'm used to being clever. French classes are doing a very good job of disabusing me of that notion.

Each class begins with everyone taking a turn talking about what we did on the weekend or telling a bit of a story about ourselves - something to display our conversational prowess. As I listen to the others, I try to simultaneously hear their narratives, translate them back into English for comprehension, come up with something worth saying myself and translate that back into French, all the while feeling my stomach knotting and flop sweat forming on my brow as my turn approaches.

Rather than relating long, colourful and detailed anecdotes like this one, I find myself reduced such feats of conversational daring as "I ate dinner", "I read a book" and "I saw a brown dog." Me, whose compulsion to talk, to elaborate, to construct fabulous run-on sentences with no end in sight - reduced to earnest and empathetic nods and one-word grunted replies. It's killing me! I have so much to say, a captive audience, and an anxiety attack every time I open my mouth.

I would write more, but I really should spend some time trying to master the conjugation of the future anterior - or to find a polite way of saying, "I have no comment" in French.