Tag Archives: chez vous ou chez moi

Coaxing out the language kitten

5 Jul

Saturday was my one year anniversary of moving to Brussels. And, despite being so well-intentioned, toddlers still speak better French than I do. I am tempted to say that it’s not for lack of trying, but actually, that’s exactly what it is. The funds that probably should have been put towards French classes have instead been poured into taking up the best and goldenest instrument in the world: the saxophone. And while I can try to convince myself that music is a universal language, and could therefore help me to communicate rather complex things in any country in the world, I’m not quite sure how I would say ‘Can you please come to unclog my kitchen sink, Mister Plumber?’ in music. I can probably make someone understand that I’ve got the blues about something, but I doubt they’d connect it with the gungy pool of water lingering around my kitchen drain.

My other half suggested that I kill two birds with one stone and learn the saxophone in French. At this stage, however, my level of French only allows me to stare like a deer in the headlights when people say things like, ‘The changerooms are all empty; what are you waiting for?’, so I can only imagine how difficult it would be to get my head around sentences like, ‘Let’s play the B♭blues pentatonic scale, practise clapping on off-beats and then throw in some improvisation, shall we?’

I did try Pimsleur audio lessons for a while: 30 minute audio classes that get you started with actual conversations immediately, rather than making you plough through the alphabet and the months of the year first. 30 minutes a day probably doesn’t sound a lot, but I could only keep up with it for a few weeks. It seems that with some things my sense of discipline can be as burly and inflexible as a US Marine Corps Drill Instructor (don’t ask me what those things are, though…), but with others it can be more like a Ragdoll kitten hiding under a bed. I need milk to coax it out.

I guess one other, smaller, reason why I resisted the audio lessons was because I felt as though I was being asked to play the part of an American news anchor on the prowl for dates. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but after being taught how to say ‘je suis americaine’ (même si je suis australienne), it seemed that the second most important activity to train your attention on was asking somebody if they’d like something to drink. After this, you were instructed to enquire ‘chez vous ou chez moi?’ The question ‘your place or mine?’ is probably never going to sound neutral no matter how you say it, but with the peculiar rising and falling inflection of the native speakers on the tapes (perhaps a symptom of words being broken down into bite-sized pronouncable parts), it comes across as very… studied. News presentery, I’d call it. ‘And now for the weather… est-ce que vous voudriez boire quelque-chose?’

I can say that this is probably the longest stretch of time I’ve felt guilty for speaking practically everywhere I go. I can order fries and coffee fine, but the minute things become slightly more complicated than ‘sur place ou á emporter?’ my eyebrows crumple and my flimsy façade of being simply a non-talkative local with a newsreader’s accent promptly falls to the floor. ‘Do you speak English?’ I ask, keeping my voice low so that the people in the queue behind me won’t cotton on to my lone-language speaking situation and whisper French insults to one another as I pass them on the way out. Okay, I know this isn’t Paris. I know that my sense of guilt is disproportionate to the situation. The various waitstaff and gallery assistants and skydiving instructors I come into contact with never seem to mind speaking English for me. It’s just that I don’t want to end up like this guy:

The scene: an American event in Brussels.

The conversation:

Me: ‘So how long have you lived in Brussels?’

American dude: ‘7 years.’

Me: ‘Wow, 7 years; your French must be pretty good by now.’

American dude: ‘Nope.’

Me: ‘What, so you learned Flemish instead?’

American dude: ‘Nope.’

Me: ‘You didn’t learn either language?’

American dude: ‘Nope.’

Me: ‘In 7 years?!’

American dude: ‘Nope.’ (Voiceover from author: quite a verbose fellow, isn’t he? The way I write it you’d doubt he even spoke English)

Me: ‘Don’t you feel guilty about that?’

American dude: ‘Why should I? Everyone speaks English here anyway.’

Me: ‘I see. Um, can you please pass the pepper?’

What I Should Have Said: ‘Yes, but you’re living in Belgium! You’re permanently asking people to speak YOUR language in THEIR country.’

End scene.

Yeah, I really don’t want to become that guy. But after one year I don’t feel much better than him: instead of diligently learning French like I should be, I’ve found myself building up a posse of fluent-English speaking contacts who can do everything from teaching me the saxophone to colouring my hair. Competent English is no good: for me to be able to learn effectively and be sure that precise instructions are understood, they must be able to speak English practically perfectly for me. In Belgium.

This is the year it ends. This is the year I’m going to coax the language kitten out from underneath the bed with the promise of classes and see if it’ll finally cooperate.

At least one plus from putting saxophone first is that I’ve already seen the way that learning anything is incremental. Mistakes are inevitable. Endless repetition is essential. This time last year the saxophone was still a golden childhood dream, and now… I don’t want to brag or anything, but I can play Three Blind Mice with the best of them. I’ll just have to start with the language equivalent of the C major scale and then work my way up to deliberately displacing the regular metrical accent so that the stress is on an off-beat…