Agents, sieges and trombones – or Everything Is More Fun In French

Learning French has been an unplanned bonus element to this year. Given that it’s the official language of the university (although outside the big cities virtually no one speaks it), I had to get up to speed on the verbes irréguliers and passé composé fairly rapidly. Although we teach with translators, there are still assignments to read, exams to mark, and a whole new world of technical jargon to master. But compared to learning isiXhosa (and in fact Malagasy), it’s not that bad – half the words are similar to English anyhow.

But not everything means what you think it means, and this is where it gets entertaining. Community-based rehabilitation is perpetrated by agents (who are neither undercover nor are they paid commission), and our students hold séances with their patients (sometimes doing very nice work with the living, although not as yet successful in contacting the dead). I had the pleasure of asking one class to bring the materials they would need for sensory assessment: including five trombones each. Then there is the Accord du siége, the contract between our NGO and the relevant ministry, which sounds as if it should come at the end of something far more dramatic than a long procession of paperwork. Recently, I had my third-year class discuss the eight things they would take along to a desert island. Rice was the obvious first choice, but Marmite as the second I did not expect. Of course, in French a marmite is a pot – I must say I was disappointed.

As some may recall, I was recently stranded on a deserted (or at least low-season, post cyclone) island without English reading matter, and dedicated my stay to deciphering Terry Pratchett in French. This did wonders for my language development, and boosted my confidence no end whenever I could understand enough to giggle at the story. I wouldn’t however recommend fantasy fiction for language learners as a rule. On reading that a vent glace was moving through the champs du choux, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that it really was a giant ice-cream (my first guess) and not an icy breeze (more sensible alternative).

Mundane daily occurrences are made more appealing in French. If one must be accosted by the law, the gendarmerie seem somehow more genteel than the police (although the local term, “po-po” is also endearing). Imagine my delight on discovering that fripperie is a real word, and that indeed, half my wardrobe is comprised thereof (not something I would ever have expected).

Simply adding an Inspector Clouseau accent to English words will only get you so far. In fact, to be understood by the Malagasy, you need a Malagasy French accent (hard trilled r’s, not slippery guttural ones). If you’re me, you will also patch together various Malagasy words (some of which are actually French), and come out with a weird sort of Creole – which gets even more interesting when your brain gives up halfway and comes out with Xhosa or Afrikaans. A charming and helpless sort of smile goes a long way at this point. Of course, the Malagasy themselves do a fair amount of such mingling. When buying something from a street vendor, you should be prepared to hear the price in either Malagasy or French. Also, it could be in one of two currencies: ariary (the official) or Malagasy francs (the antiquated). To convert from FMG to Ar, divide by five. To convert from vazah price to actual price, divide again by at least three. Then start bargaining – in your choice of Malagasy or French. There’s really no room for confusion.

Although I’m reasonably chuffed with my language progress in the last six months, this is not to say that I would get anywhere in actual France. My students lull me into a false sense of proficiency: their language level is such that I can now mark without a dictionary – unless of course they’ve plagiarised, which gives me a fail-safe detection mechanism. My delightful French housemate Emilie is a patient conversation partner, but it’s likely to take more than Terry Pratchett to get me to anything like competence. In the meantime, the daily discoveries and misunderstandings are highly entertaining.

It’s true: everything really is more fun in French.

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