Moving to France naturally necessitated learning the French language. I started with some basic knowledge as I had studied French at high school and one year at university but that was some 30yrs earlier and I was shocked at how little of it was left. I had 2 hourly lessons every week on board a yacht moored at Whangarei with a wonderful French woman in preparation for the move. But it is still true that re-learning and perfecting the French language has produced some of my most challenging and also some of my most hilarious moments.
At the airport on arrival I found myself having to use frantic hand signals to buy a phone card and at church on our first Sunday I laughed when someone asked me if I had heard the announcements. “Umm ummm, there were announcements?” There was so much work to be done! I felt totally like a very young child when I wasn’t even able to sing the hymns that I love because I just couldn’t get my mouth around the French words.
The choice to attend the Cergy ward literally threw us in at the deep end as, unlike other wards in the stake, there were no special English speaking meetings and I am so grateful for that. It was a case of sink or swim. A few months after arrival I was called into the ward Primary presidency to work with the children and that was just perfect because the children were not frightened to correct my errors in grammar :P. It was fun and games trying to teach the children the Primary songs when I had to completely relearn them myself in my newly adopted language.
Outside of the church I also threw myself at learning the language. Every chance I could get I tried to speak and hear French-in the trains, in the shopping malls, walking around the streets. The poor local population as this woman with a very strange accent would sidle alongside of them and strike up a halting conversation in French. As I travelled in the trains I would take advantage of the newspapers floating in the carriages to read avidly and regularly in French. I set a goal to read the entire Book of Mormon in French which was a very long process, often with my English scriptures at the side. This took me 9 long months!
Two months after arrival I registered myself in a small business conference and I sat through workshops and discussions where I was only able to understand 10% of what was being said. The sheer volume of business jargon in French which was new to me was overwhelming. I can tell you that by the end of each day I arrived back home exhausted! It was in this first business conference that I realised that in no way was I ready to start work yet-not only in relation to the administration to be put into place but how was I going to be able to undertake a detailed analysis of an organisation if my mastery of French was at such a basic level? I was terrified that I might actually be offered a contract because I knew I was incapable of following through. I busied myself with doing market research and finding out my responsibilities.
There were some amusing moments to lighten the seriousness of the situation although my sense of humour is perhaps a little wacky. Early on I went to a union for independent consultants to learn more about social charges. I explained to this very austere man the information I needed. He looked down his nose at me and then suggested that I needed to address myself to the French embassy-in Wellington, New Zealand! For once I let my sense of humour get the better of me in a very serious situation and I mimicked his haughtiness a bit and told him in French, “Monsieur, I have already passed that stage, let’s move onto the next stage, shall we?” He took a step back and then suddenly threw his hands in the air, waved them around in anger and in this simply gorgeous French accent proclaimed, “Impossible Madame!” while walking away. It was like a scene out of an Inspector Clouseau movie and it was all I could do to not laugh out loud. This example was not isolated but was very reflective of what happened to me many, many times.
I have created a few laughs as well by making the most classic of errors. Often, if you don’t know the French word you try the English word with a French accent. This does actually work sometimes but there is one to avoid. I was at a single adult conference when I was discussing French bread. I wanted to say that it didn’t have preservatives in it and I said, “Il n’y a pas du preservatif dans le pain français”. They were almost rolling on the floor with laughter. I found out that what I actually said was that there was no condom in the bread.
My French is still not fluent but I am pleased to say that I am able to eavesdrop again if I want! Roll on being fully bi-lingual!