18 February 2012

Why don't the French eat two eggs at breakfast? Because one is un oeuf

This post is a response to Brad Patterson's challenge to write on the topic of 'How and why you learned a foreign language'...

Well, I started learning French in school at age 11 because it was compulsory. I continued to GCSE because I was good at it; to A-level because I was entertaining romantic notions of living in Paris; and to degree level because I could see the sense in studying Linguistics and a foreign language in tandem. It's strange though, I still don't feel as though I can Speak French. Not really. I've never spent longer than a month in France (or any Francophone country) as I never became the adult my teenage self thought I would, sitting in cafes watching the sunlight on the Seine, my hair falling stylishly out of its chignon, the table before me spread with leather-bound notebooks, a citron presse and the remains of my lunchtime croque monsieur, probably wearing a Breton top for good measure and waiting for the tres dashing Jean-Luc to come and pick me up in his vintage Citroen.

Croque madame: un or une? The jury's out, mais c'est
delicieux/euse quand meme
Non, I moved to south London where nobody has spoken French since the Middle Ages, got a crappy temp job in the Civil Service and utterly failed to solidify what I'd learnt. I remain terrified of speaking to real French people, although I can understand Le Monde and talk to myself perfectly fluently en francais (which is probably the second sign of madness). I follow none of the advice I've given my own students over the years: just go right ahead and speak, it doesn't matter if you make a mistake, confidence is more important than accuracy, etc. If I'm in France and someone approaches me I freeze and convince myself I don't know how to respond, even though 90% of the time the question is just Avez-vous du feu? or, very occasionally, l'heure. (I'm perenially disappointed that nobody has ever asked me the way to the cathedral. The French are literally falling over each other to ask/give directions in the Tricolore coursebooks, and it's the one eventuality for which I feel thoroughly prepared.)

As to how I learnt French...I struggle to remember, which has been a source of frustration since my CELTA back in 2003. Why has the language from the first few years stuck in my mind so very, very clearly? Was it the novelty? Did we do communicative activities? I have vague recollections of pair work, but stronger ones of substitution drills and spelling tests. Did Madame Kevan and Monsieur Steele conduct the classes in French or English? I really couldn't say.

Post-school, I once again ignored my own advice to read widely in the target language and study little and often, and passed all my degree assignments only by sitting in front of my laptop until 03:00 every night for a week before the deadline, my hand lingering on my well-worn Collins Robert. One truly memorable experience of my degree however was a summer school in Caen which I adored and now realise was essentially a week of dogme - each member of the class created a character for themselves as a resident of a block of flats, and the week's activities were based around interactions between the residents (gossip, confrontations and so on). It's something I'd love to replicate with a group of students if and when I have one again.

Could I gossip in French now? Definitely not. Could I write an essay? - maybe, with a dictionary and with great difficulty. If I went to live in a Francophone country, would the vocabulary of ten years' study all come flooding back? I have no idea. Which does make me wonder: have I really 'learnt' French at all? What does it mean to know a language?


  1. I love jokes... am I'm torn because I don't get the title joke about eggs... does it have something to do with oeuf and oeufs (without the f pronunciation). PLEASE HELP ;-)

    What does it mean to know a language, or be fluent, or bilingual or a polyglot. I'm reading a book right now that explores hyperpolyglots and they certainly have a different way of "knowing" a language.

    I'm sure we could gossip in french, though... that'd even be fun ;-)

    I really enjoyed your explorative writing style here, peppered with fun images. In the end, I think both the why and how are actually hard questions to answer as it takes a lot of retrospective generalization. As Paolo Coehlo says though... it's not the answers that count; it's the questions!

    Cheers, Brad

  2. Love the blogpost and can certainly empathise with much of it as a late entrant into teaching who spent years working for an English bank.

    My KS2 students always groan when I tell them the egg joke. (Punchline Brad = 'un oeuf is enough'.)

    My other favourite bad joke is the one about the French cat qui s'appelle un, deux, trois and the English cat called one, two, three...

    The cats have a swimming race and the children need to decide who was the winner. The correct answer is the English cat one, two, three because un, deux, trois cat (say quatre) sank (cinq)!

    1. Sorry it's taken me so long to reply to this but yes, I loved the cat joke too and will be adding it to my repertoire of seven (now eight) jokes that I can actually remember!

      Thanks so much for your comments too :)