Having breakfast at a hotel in the chouette Eighth Arrondisement of Paris last weekend, and employing what I imagine to be my faultless French, I asked for a boiled egg, ‘un oeuf à la coque.’ The waitress asked, did I want glaçons (ice) with that? Err, no, I replied, bemused. The waitress then brought me a bottle of Coca-Cola.
Perhaps this is not a propitious anecdote with which to begin today’s assignment, ‘How I learned to master French.’ Perhaps it casts doubt on my claim to speak French. Or perhaps it was merely a reminder to be humble.
I am sometimes asked how I have cracked it but the truth is it can’t be done. Once you accept this, you can start speaking French, hoping your charming accent will overcome the grammar of a vache espagnole. I note there are many who claim fluency in another language but seem reluctant to demonstrate this in the field. This is how P.G. Wodehouse explained the phenomenon:
Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.
Few are chosen to be perfectly polyglot. Some refuse to learn. Others try and fail. Like the Englishman I observed in Pézenas who confidently asked at the papeterie for a plume with his postcard, only to be informed by the baffled salesgirl that they didn’t sell birds. (He was evidently channeling ‘la plume de ma tante’ that he’d learned in prep school. I whispered in his ear that he wanted a stylo – a pen.)
The only people I know who are incontestably bilingual are those who grew up in multilingual homes. There’s a girl in the next village with a British father, an Italian-Swedish mother, who went to primary school in France and college in the UAE, and speaks excellent English, Italian, Swedish and French and imperfect Arabic.