Every third Tuesday I teach a group of mostly retired, lovely French people, whose only goal is to improve their English.
I asked them the last time for suggestions on what they would like to do at the next class.
‘Tell us about England, about the colour, the life’ they said to me.
‘Speak about where you are from, tell us about Yorkshire’ they asked me.
‘We love hearing all the different ways you say things’ they told me.
They may regret their requests when they see what I have in store for them tonight. The handouts I provide aren’t just for reading you see, they are also for reading ALOUD.
Bonus points will be awarded for correctly pronouncing ‘sithee’ ‘ey up’ and ‘Eh by gum, tis chuffing cawd enuf t’freeze t’balls off a brass bloody monkey aht theer’
I’ve started teaching* English in my village to a group of French retirees. The lady who usually does it is the town-planner, so she’s often called into meetings, and for this reason my services were offered – not by me, but by one of her students – so I now take on her duties once every three weeks. Tuesday night was my first time in charge, here are a few excerpts from that evening.
I asked the group to tell me something they had done that week that they didn’t like. Three people said the same thing:
Denis: ‘I had to make some jam, but I didn’t like it’
Michelle: ‘I made jam, but I didn’t like doing it’
Francoise: ‘I made jam, 50 pots, but I didn’t like it’
Me: ‘Do you sell this jam?’
Me: ‘If you don’t like doing it, why don’t you just stop?’
All: ‘But the fruit will go bad’
Me: ‘So give the fruit to the animals, or people’
All: *blank stares*
On my teaching methods
‘Can you talk slower’
‘I can’t understand you, can you talk slower’
After saying a lengthy passage of text out loud
‘Can you write that on the board?’ (I do)
‘What is that? Is that a Russian character?’ (I’ve written my ‘h’s with a sloping bridge)
‘You keep dropping your ‘t’s, pronounce your ‘t’s’
‘Has he started talking slower?’
On my accent
Francoise: ‘Is he American? Are you American?’
Me: ‘No I’m from Yorkshire’
Francoise (frowning, turning to her friend Martine): ‘Is he American?’
Martine: ‘No, he’s from Yorkshire’
Francoise: ‘Oh yes, like the dogs, Yorkshire Terriers’
Apropos of nothing
Christine: ‘We had to get a new ram. It was having too much sex with the other sheep and would have messed up the gene pool. We bought another one’
On being asked what she did with the old one
Christine: ‘We killed it and ate it. Well, not all of it, most of it is in the freezer’
That’s just a snippet of the many things that were said that night. I loved doing it. Hopefully they did too. Can’t wait for the next class.
*The term teaching is used here in its loosest possible sense
New kid in my English class today.
He was colouring in a work sheet with the rest of the group, when he started laughing at the title. The title was ‘Can I have a pet’.
I thought he was confused about what it meant, and gave him a detailed explanation as to how he would put this question to his parents in French if, for example, he wanted a cat or a dog.
He waited patiently for me to finish and then told me that he was laughing because he thought ‘pet’ sounded just like the word for ‘fart’ in French (which it does, especially when you add the sound-effects, like he did.)
I like this kid.
I teach English to the French kids at my local school on Thursdays.
After they’d finished one of their exercises today (colouring the English days of the week on the petals of a flower in the corresponding English colours) they asked me what to do with the centre. I told them they could do what they wanted with it, get creative.
As you can see – and as they told me when I asked – some of them are really getting into the World Cup.
I found the little heart particularly endearing.
‘Why are those two people going at it in that casserole dish’ I say to my partner, showing her an illustration of said people going at it in a book. ‘It says ‘passer a la casserole’ and there’s all arms and legs being flung about in a big casserole dish’. ‘Ahhh’ says my partner, drawing on her 30-odd years* of being an actual French person ‘It means ‘the one who is guilty”. I look at her then at the image. ‘Oh’ I say ‘That’s not what the group said tonight’.
Dial it back half-an-hour and I’m sat in the middle of my French/English group, leafing through a book called Ciel Mon Mari’ which translated into English is Sky My Husband it’s a book that Isabelle the chemist has agreed to loan me and is full of literal – very, very literal – translations of English and French sayings.
The French use this book as way of learning the English language. It’s been in Isabelle’s family since she was little, and she’s dug it out of her parent’s attic to bring it to show the group, as well as to confuse the English guy.
It’s not until I get to page 27 that one of them actually makes any sense.
‘They are very, very literal’ chimes in Christine, noticing my furrowed brow.
‘Yes’ I say.
‘And they don’t all work’ she adds.
I nod my head in agreement. No, they don’t all work.
I see one that is meant to be the representation of the English saying ‘Raining cats and dogs’. That saying means heavy rain – I know, because I’m English, but just to be doubly sure I’ve Googled it. It doesn’t mean that you go out with an umbrella, and if the weather is particularly bad, cats and dogs climb on your umbrella and urinate on you.
I notice one with some frankly odd activity on it, and show it to the whole group. ‘Why are those two people going at it in that casserole dish’ I say to them ”It says ‘passer a la casserole’ and there’s all arms and legs being flung about in a big casserole dish’.
The group draws on its 300-odd years of being actual French people to inform me that it means to lose one’s virginity. They say this while laughing.
Or maybe cackling is a more apt description.
I look at Christine, as I put two and two together.
‘So does that mean that the casserole is…..and you put the sausage in the casserole…?’
She doesn’t say anything, just sits there nodding her head and laughing along with the rest of the group at the look on my face.
The missus isn’t sure she believes this group and is going to ask her mum for clarification.
I’d love to be a fly on the wall during that conversation.
*Ages have been changed to protect the innocent**
***The term ‘innocent’ is here used in its loosest possible sense
Well after a brief (two months!) break for a variety of reasons including; partners working away in Paris (mine), expensive cruises (theirs), and Easter holidays (everybody’s) the English/French group was back last night.
For anyone who has forgotten (I wouldn’t blame you) this is the weekly group I attend where I speak French to a group of retirees, and they speak English to me – and we correct each other. Last night’s meeting revolved around another presentation by Christian, the retired something-or-other (I think he has told me, but I’ve forgotten, so I just imagine he used to be a lumberjack).
He was quite keen to show us a cruise around the Canary Islands, until we pointed out that he’d already showed us that a couple of months back. He seemed to disagree with this – even when I told him the name of the cruise ship he sailed on.
I think he just likes the Canary Islands.
So after he grudgingly accepted that we’d already seen it and – thanks but no thanks – didn’t want a repeat, he treated us to a PowerPoint presentation covering his trip to China in 2001.
Christian had travelled (by bus this time, cruise ships tend to struggle inland in China) through the country with five of his friends. I couldn’t work out who his wife was, and didn’t want to question the group…’dynamics’ for fear of causing offence, but they all seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Well, except for a dark haired lady who resolutely refused to smile – but there’s always one, isn’t there?
I pointed out the fact that some of the fashions appeared to be from 1991, as opposed to 2001 – and this seemed to greatly confuse the other members of the group, as they went off on a tangent about something else. I used the universal mime-symbol for massive shoulder pads, but they didn’t get that either.
It was a bit of an eye-opener to someone who has never been to China (me) seeing vast parts of the country that have remained relatively unchanged, for centuries. Using traditional methods that their forebears employed.
These traditional methods even extended to the bus that Christian and his chums were travelling on, as it had to navigate a slight ‘step’ in the road. To overcome this the bus driver used the traditional Chinese method of forcing the occupants off the bus to gather stones to create a ‘ramp’ for each wheel of the bus, so that it could pass over this hump. Then he employed the traditional Chinese method of making the travellers push it too.
I double-checked this with Christian – twice – and he said it did actually happen.
And you thought travelling on a bus in the UK was bad?
Christian also informed me that the Chinese – at this point in time – had still not seen many Europeans, so he and his friends were something of a novelty and they had lots of photos taken of them, with the locals, by the locals. I suggested that he should have charged 10 pounds for a photo, and 15 pounds for them to stroke his head. He responded – very seriously – that it was a win-win situation as they got to take photographs with the Chinese as well.
One of these weeks I am going to have the group discuss British humour – with an emphasis on sarcasm.
Littered here and there, as a subtitle on the photographs, was the term ‘long noses’. Apparently – and I’m just passing this on – this is the term the Chinese use to refer to Europeans. As I said, these photographs were taken in 2001, so they may not use this term any more. It was a new one on me anyway.
The odd spelling mistake cropped up throughout the presentation, I corrected most of them for him (not too many though, don’t want to annoy a possible-ex-lumberjack), with the most interesting one being where Christian had referred to a small street as ‘smalls street’. I explained to them – after correcting it – that ‘smalls’ in English referred to underwear. They told me the name for underwear for ladies (culottes) – which I knew, and men’s underwear, which I did not. For men in France underpants are referred to as a ‘slip’, which, I told them, was an exclusively female term in the UK, referring to a – and I struggled here with my explanation – somewhat sexy, sheer undergarment.
They immediately knew what I meant, and gave me lots of additional details.
The saucy devils.
The funniest correction of the night for me – and for the rest of the group too I’d say judging by the laughter – was learning that I had been calling my French teachers by the wrong name for the last few months*. I had been referring to them as ‘maîtresse’ when I should actually have been calling them ‘professeur’. Maîtresse is fine if you are a pupil, or you are referring to a pupil’s female teacher at a primary school in France. If you are an adult calling your teacher that at college, you are effectively calling them your mistress.
So that explains why my ‘professeurs’ kept laughing at me when I said this.
I’ve got three of them though, all ladies.
Not one of them has corrected me…
*Yes I also go to a French class twice a week, for two hours at a time. What can I say? I obviously like having a near-permanent headache. I love this language and all its crazy ways.
Pierre works at my local bureau de poste – or post office, for people who don’t live in France. He’s a very helpful, friendly, patient man. He has had to be a patient man, because since moving to France just over a year ago I have abused the poor chap’s ears on a weekly basis with what I laughingly refer to as French.
Pierre has effectively been the whetstone that I use to sharpen my language skills on. He’s built for the task, as he stands there, calmly and politely listening to this foreigner trying to get his message across in an incredibly broken way.
It’s getting better now – although I will always, always lag behind my kids – but in the early days our exchanges probably went something like this:
PIERRE: ‘Hello sir, how may I be of assistance?’
ME: ‘Send this quick. Need send quick. Need see on computer. Online track? See on computer? Yes? Send quick?’
PIERRE: ‘Of course, will you need a signature?’
ME: ‘Can you track it online? Online? See it on computer online?’
PIERRE: ‘Yes of course, do you need a signature?’
ME: ‘So I can track it on the computer?’
PIERRE: ‘Yes of course, do you need a signature?’
ME: ‘And I’ll get to track it on a computer?’
…and so it would go on for a while, until the message he was trying to convey would slowly sink into my hardened, adult brain. He never complained though, not once. Always a smile on his face has old Pierre (I just hope he never turns out to be a serial killer, because then I’ll have to say such trite things like ‘But he seemed like such a lovely man‘ ‘He never had a bad word to say about anybody*’ and all his neighbours can say that ‘He kept himself to himself‘).
As the weeks rolled along I continued to pester this man with my packages, and his smile never faltered. Even when I had to send something to the UK and needed it to be tracked AND signed at the other end.
I thought I’d pushed him too far, and at any moment his head would explode.
But it didn’t.
His glasses just got a bit steamed up.
So it was with some surprise that he said to me one day, as I was yet again posting various items and whittering away to him, that I could move from formal to informal French with him. And he sealed this ‘deal’ with a handshake. From that day on I dropped the ‘vous’ and moved to the ‘tu’ form, and have been shaking his hand ever since.
It’s not something I experience very often, and there are no clear signposts as to when you should broach the subject, or who should make the first move. It’s a bit like if you are on a date with someone, and you want to kiss them, and think they might want to kiss you, but you don’t want to risk it and be left floundering. It was perhaps a bit like that with me and Pierre – and maybe it will be like that with you, and your postman.
Only with less tongues and awkwardness.
Well, depending on your relationship with your postman anyway.
So no, there are’t really any clear signs for it here in France, or if there are no one has told me about it. The timeline for this shift in the relationship with postman Pierre has been approximately one year, I don’t know if it could have been progressed quicker, as I’m a newbie at this game. Also I’m too busy concentrating on just speaking most of the time, and so miss some of the subtleties of day-to-day life that I would pick up on in my native country.
I do of course talk to many other people using informal French, but in those instances we’ve just sort of fallen into it by accident – one day I might thank them in the ‘tu’ form and that’s it, we stay that way. Or in the case of my partner’s work colleagues I was told by my partner to use the informal with them, almost immediately. I went along with this because when you are a stay-at-home dad and your wife is the breadwinner, if her boss wants you to talk to him as a friend, you bloody well talk to him as a friend.
But I’ve never had someone specifically ask to make this move, as it’s not something that exists in the UK, it’s a whole new world for me. Back in England you just used to see someone a few times and that was it, you could be friendly with them.
Unless they were miserable bastards (lots of them around) and then you just said hello, goodbye and that was it**.
So that’s Pierre onboard with me, now I just need to work on my mother-in-law. I mean, it’s been over 17 years since I met her daughter, you’d think that by now she would allow me to start using informal French with her…
*Of course I’m saying he’s never had a bad word to say about anyone but as my French isn’t the best he could call me a big sack of shit to my face and I wouldn’t know.
** If you were lucky – the next door neighbour’s father would have his teeth pulled out through his arsehole before he said hello.
‘What is a feather? what is ‘flock’?’ we focused on proverbs at last night’s English/French club meeting, and there was quite a bit that was lost in translation.
The best approximation of ‘Qui se ressemble s’assemble‘ in English – according to my French chums – was ‘Birds of a feather flock together‘. However flock does not exist in French, and feather is a different word too, so there was a bit of explaining on that one.
This was proverb 23 out of about 90 or so.
It was quite a long evening.
My personal favourite was the translation of ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks‘ (or ‘You can’t teach granny to suck eggs‘) which in French is ‘Ce n’est pas à un vieux singe qu’on apprend à faire la grimace‘ – you can’t teach an old monkey how to make faces.
I discovered that they have a specific name for people lacking in the standard number of eyes in France, as ‘In the valley of the blind the one-eyed man is king‘ translated in French to ‘Au royaume des aveugles, les borgnes sont les rois‘. ‘Borgnes’ being the name of a person with one eye.
When they queried me if there was a name for them in English, I dismissed their suggestion of ‘pirate’ (thinking they were kidding) and suggested ‘Cyclops’. They informed me that this would not go down well at all In France, and in fact would be taken as an insult.
So that’s something to keep in mind for this year’s Borgnes Convention.
Probably the highlight of the evening was when we read ‘Les petites ruisseaux font les grandes rivières‘ – little streams can make big rivers. This then had us all googling key words from the English translation of it – myself included.
There are now at least five inhabitants of a sleepy French town who are fully aware of what a ‘mickle’ is in relation to a ‘muckle’.
They are, however, still somewhat unclear on exactly how many mickles it would take to make a muckle, but they get the general idea.
I enjoyed another great evening last night at the English speaking group (where I teach them English and they teach me French) which has swelled from the 6 attendees last week to 8 (or 9 if you count me).
Our chat ranged over a variety of subjects, at one point moving from Badminton, to Winston Churchill’s best quotes. One of the ladies that attends writes down phrases that she wishes to go over, and so asked me to spell out a particular word from one of the war-time PM’s famous sayings. She seemed to struggle with the English translation, so I switched to French.
This, however, meant I had to pronounce the letters ‘e’ and ‘o’, one of my weak points in French, which the group immediately noticed. I then spent five minutes practising how to pronounce them with Isabelle, the chemist, who was sitting opposite me. If anybody had passed the window at that point, and heard the sounds emanating from within, they would have thought that we were either A. Filming the world’s worst pornographic film or B. Re-enacting Planet Of The Apes.
Following on from this they also wanted to know if I could say the alphabet in French, which I said I could and, knowing they would ask me to anyway, I recited it. I was then treated to a round of applause from the assembled French upon completion of it and, when I told my partner about this when I got home, she started laughing. ‘They applaud you like you would a performing monkey!’ which, given the sounds I was making earlier in the evening, was quite apt.
Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, I’ve stopped ‘cutting them slack’ and was correcting their English at every opportunity.