Comment dit-on “Winging it”?


Frantic day at work today, exacerbated slightly by a trip to the mall (ugh) to find a 2011 daybook for the office downstairs. This proved trickier than I thought and took far longer than it should have. One story didn’t have any planners that would lie flat (the daybook is always open), the second didn’t have anything suitable for under $30, so I went to the Scary Place, aka Librairie du Soleil, which always has a great selection of notebook-y agenda-type things. But is scary.

My progressive parents were all about the then-new French Immersion program in the 1970s, so signed my older brother up right away. Neither of them were terribly adept in the language (my dad went to high school in Ohio, my mother got an hour a week of French when she was in school – though, it has to be said, her grammar was quite good, so rote learning isn’t all terrible). So, from kindergarten (1981) through grade 12, half of my academic life at least was spent in French. I took math (until grade 12, when that was no longer an option), gym (in elementary school), History, and Geography in French. Oh, and French class, of course. I muddled through, in my typical way, with very little effort in and less than extraordinary grades as a result.

When I graduated from high school, my diploma came with a certificate declaring that I was bilingual. It didn’t matter that I was a solid B student and that my grammar was frequently appalling. I could speak French, according the Government of Ontario.

Which, ennnnh, fast forward 14 (!!) years, I don’t speak French as well as I used to, which is really not a good thing. I mean, I get by, but I am so easily flustered that I tend to clam up in situations where I need to speak and take about a hour to write a two-line email, and even then, I forward it to Richard for him to look over. A few years ago, I went to the Alliance Française for an assessment and was told that my comprehension was exceptional, but that my written French especially was ‘B’ level, which is, well, pretty crap considering. There was no class for me, so I took private, customised lessons for a while, but it was quite expensive and I couldn’t keep it up.

The AF, in Ottawa at least, goes by Federal Public Service guidelines, because the bulk of their students are feds. There are four levels: A (very beginner), B (meh), C (hey, pretty good for an anglo) and E (exceptional, excellent, if you test at this level, you need never be tested again). So, being at B level (B3, which is the highest B, but still) is a bit disheartening. But I don’t deserve a C. I mean, going into that French language bookstore today nearly put me into a full-blown panic…well, once the cashier told me that my selection of Le Français au bureau, which I picked up to maybe help me with my utter lack of business French skills problem, was a ‘très bon achat!’. I stumbled in my response, which was something like ‘Uhhh, oui, ça me prend des heures pour composer des…er…courriels’.

Yeah, I am a rock star. I said nothing during the awkwardly long pause while the Interac payments was processing and muttered ‘merci, bonne journée’ and got the fuck out ASAP.

And YET, when I was in Paris, I did not feel this intimidated. At least not about my abilities going into a conversation. (I will admit that I got irritated by my own accent when people switched to English, though.)

My pseudo psychiatric reasoning, which I am basically coming up with as I write, is that I totally had a superiority complex compared to other tourists in France (‘Well, compared to that American family over there who can’t understand the word “toilette”, I’m an utter genius!’) and also I didn’t have the fear of ever running into any of the baffled French people I spoke to again. Whereas in Ottawa, my French is good, not great, and there are plenty of totally bilingual, or unilingually French-speaking who I might see again tomorrow. And they might laugh to themselves because of my ‘must flee!’ mentality when I forgot what the subjunctive is (which, frankly, I do in English) or can’t remember how to give someone directions involving the phrase ‘go straight ahead’.

Which, of course, is patently ridiculous. I don’t judge French speakers who struggle with their English. I admire their resolve and ability. I am not hopeless either; sadly, my boss depends on me for dealing with anything remotely French because his is infinitely worse than mine. But I am ridiculously hard on myself, so that’s yet another thing to contemplate from now on. Along with the massive tome of Frenchness that lives on my desk now.

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