I teach retired French people English every month.
You may have heard me mention it before.
Last night I took them a handout ‘18 Tips To Help With Your English Pronunciation‘.
How to make the ‘th’ sound was covered.
It had pictures and everything.
They liked that.
This was great because, amongst other things, I’m trying to help them say ‘the’ and ‘this’ and ‘that’ properly.
So then when they want to say ‘Hello, is the theatre this way, or that way?’ they say ‘Hello, is the theatre this way, or that way?’ and not: ‘Hello, iz ze see-a-ter zis way, or zat way?’ or: ‘Hello, iz ve ve-a-ter vis way, or vat way?’
There were suggestions for how to improve your English e.g: watch Youtube, listen to podcasts, watch the news in English and practice in the park by asking other English speakers if they sound alright.
It also suggested recording yourself, and then playing back your recording so you could hear where you were going wrong.
‘This is great’ I thought ‘They can do that later’.
‘This is great’ they said ‘We can do that now’
They all pulled out their mobile phones, which were far more impressive than mine, (which struggles to play ‘Snake’) and started recording themselves reading from the handout.
‘This is great’ I thought ‘My work here is done’.
Michelle looked at me. I like Michelle, she looks like everyone’s favourite grandma. And I bet she bakes really nice cakes.
‘Why don’t we get Phil to read some French?’
I’ve gone off Michelle.
‘We can record it and listen to it’ she added.
Now I think she looks more like that woman with the gingerbread house, the one in the forest that tried to shove those two bread-crumb kids in the oven.
‘Here, you can read this advert from my Aldi flyer’ she finished, handing me the brochure, and indicating what she meant.
I bet her cakes taste horrible.
I looked at the advert. It was on my personal favourite, Mastermind subject: hen houses.
The word for hen house in French is a nightmare to pronounce, for me anyway. It’s ‘poulailler’, which is really easy to copy and paste from Google (after three badly-spelled attempts, anyway) but horrible to say.
The closest I’ve ever gotten to a hen house is buying one for my French mother-in-law, and it’s this one awful word that makes me remember it so vividly.
‘You want a hen house?’ I’d said to her, on the sunny day of June 12th, 2018 (12.43pm) ‘Yes’ she said to me ‘From Amazon UK, I don’t have an account’ I clicked on Amazon France, ‘What about all these hundreds of hen houses?’ I said to her. ‘No’ she said to me ‘I want that one’. ‘Right’ I said to her ‘And what is it in French? a poulailler?’. ‘No’, she said to me, ‘It’s pronounced ‘poulailler”
‘Nearly, it’s Poulailler’
This went on for three-and-a-half days. Actually it was probably only ten minutes, but when you can’t pronounce something in French and you’re sat opposite an implacable French person repeatedly saying it perfectly, blinking at you like that penguin from ‘Wallace And Gromit: The Wrong Trousers‘, time seems to go funny and stretch out.
So back in class and I read the passage out. Poulailler didn’t disappoint and was still no friend to my tongue.
I finished and they made positive noises. ‘Hmmm’ they said and ‘Bien’ and ‘pas mal’ and stuff like that.
Then Christine pressed play on her phone.
Now I hate my voice, with a passion, and have been affectionately referred to as ‘Orville’ in the past by friends. So I was not looking forward to what was to come.
I was not let down.
The room was filled with a God-awful noise that sounded like Inspector Clouseau met that bloke off ‘Allo, ‘Allo’ and somehow managed to conceive a child. A child that took all the very worst aspects of their voices and dialled it up to 11. I felt like a French Borat.
My mind has thankfully blanked it out, as though it can’t keep such an awful memory in. Surely, I thought on the way home, I can’t be that bad.
I turned to my rock, my moon and stars, the mother of my children, my partner – surely she would reassure me?
Oh, and she’s French too.
‘Hey’ I said to her.
‘Hmmm?’ she looked at me.
‘What do I sound like when I speak French?’
She looked at me, blinking like that penguin from ‘Wallace and Gromit: The Wrong Trousers’.
‘Weird’ she finally replied, sticking it and snapping it off.
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