At the Base of the Language Mountain

France.Mary Cassat

After finishing a Bachelor of Arts at university in the early nineteen eighties I did what every self-respecting, newly graduated member of my peer group did and took off for Europe. I arrived in London and stayed with the adult son of friend of my fathers, an elderly solicitor who lived close to Hampstead Heath.

One bleak January afternoon we went to the solicitor’s home for tea. This meal consisted of crumpets by an open fire, cups of tea and cake. So it’s true, I remember thinking, they actually do all the Enid Blyton-ish things I’d spent twenty years reading about, pound cake at midnight and lashings of lemonade. I was shy, and quite out of my depth with this terribly English family, I nibbled my crumpet and stayed as much in the background as possible. But a precocious granddaughter found me and proceeded to address me in rapid French.

I had no idea what she was talking about and just wanted her to take her clever self away and leave me to my fingers which I longed to lick. She frowned at me then turned to the gathering, laughed with incredulity and announced, ‘She can’t speak French.’

Precocious One was quickly hushed. Terribly bad manners to point out other’s deficiencies. But I could tell these well educated, upper middle class folk were surprised, even though, as an Australian my lack of language accomplishment was not completely unexpected.

The eyes of all fell upon me. Could I blame my parents? Not really, as French and Latin were taught at the school I attended. It’s just that I, like ninety five per cent of my classmates, found languages hard and boring, not to mention irrelevant.

I felt my uncouth colonialism keenly. But I had an ace up my sleeve, I’d smack back at these smug French-speaking English.

‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘There really isn’t much point to our learning French in Australia. You see, we are really a part of Asia and we were taught Indonesian.’

Well, that confused them and to murmurs of, ‘Yes of course,’ and ‘Never thought of that’, the conversation shifted away, I allowed myself a tiny smirk at my tormenter and returned to my fingers.

It was true. In Year Eleven Indonesian was introduced at my school and we spent many happy hours cooking lumpiah and distracting the sweet Indonesian woman who had come to teach us. But did we retain any trace of the Indonesian language? No we did not. And few of us were inspired by French verbs. I never understood why everything had to be either male or female. Why was the table female and the chair male? And how could you tell? Did French tables come with lacy tablecloths? And why did they bother?

But nobody could answer my questions. It was a case of rote learning and repeat or daydream. I chose the latter and spent much of my time scouring the illustrations of my French text book looking for clues as to the gender of the object in the picture.

But my humiliation at the hands of that English girl has haunted me. I was reminded again of my, and a large slab of the Australian population, inadequacy when visiting an historic lighthouse on Kangaroo Island. There were maybe twenty people crammed into the base of the old lighthouse, silently listening to the guide as he talked of the lives of the lighthouse keepers. Then he pointed to a sign above the stairs, a phrase in Latin, and asked if anyone knew what it meant.

The mostly adult group hemmed and hawed and scuffled their feet and finally a tall German near the door read the sign first in Latin and then in English. The guide laughed and said we were a typical bunch of Australians, resolutely monolingual, and how lucky to have an educated German amongst our group. This was followed by murmured suggestion among the group that we push this so-called educated German off the top of the lighthouse, thinks he’s so smart, let’s see another language get him out of that little pickle.

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These two incidents burned into my brain a real sense of lack, compared to so many other humans. I want to be like them. I want a second language. I know, I’ll learn French. I have pidgin Italian, which functions reasonably well in Italy, but I need all those triggers around me to bring what I’ve learned back to the correct part of my brain. The logical step would be to set myself the task of learning Italian properly. Particularly as I have no family or cultural ties to France to inspire me.

I’ve travelled through France twice and found it ‘pleasant’. I want to feel more, I want to be in love, I want to swoon … but it just doesn’t thrill me. France doesn’t arouse in me the same fierce passion I have for Italy, a passion born long before I set foot in the country. Thank you, Lina Wertmuller.

Wouldn’t Italian be the logical language to start with? Why French? Because the learning of French has a huge support network, primarily through the Alliance Francais, through podcasts, informal French speaking groups who meet for conversation, through online resources and more and I want to maximise my chances of success.

The Italian language organisation, the Dante Aligheri Society is on the other side of the city and they are not as well run and resourced as the Alliance. So I’d probably be less likely to stick at it. I’m being brutally honest about my motivation here. The Adelaide Alliance Francais is a ten minute drive from my home, is staffed by lovely people, has great resources as well as two French cafe’s only a stone’s throw away. If I know there’s a slice of Far Breton cake after a hard session of French verbs then I’m more likely to keep going.

So I have the why and the where, the fear and the determination. Seven years, they say, seven years to acquire another language. Could take me seventeen, who knows, but as is the custom these days I am going to share my adventure toward bilingualism on this blog, along with any useful resources I come across.

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2 thoughts on “At the Base of the Language Mountain

  1. Greta van der Rol

    I can relate to a lot of this. Especially Enid Blyton and licking one’s fingers. I am a little older than you and Indonesian was not a choice. We had to learn a language, though, if we aspired to go to Uni. At first, that was French. That’s it, end of story. But I wanted to learn German. It was of much more interest to me, given my Dutch heritage (and, may I say, birth). I got to do German and actually did 2 years of German at university. Could I converse in German now? Nuh-uh. I can understand a little, forgotten a lot more. Same with French. I can speak a little Dutch, a left-over from what little Dutch was spoken at home. If I were to (properly) learn a language, it would be Dutch. But everybody there speaks English, so I probably won’t. It’s very true that it’s ‘use it or lose it’. Here, you’d have to work at it. Go to the societies, read the books, see the movies, watch SBS.

    I admire your zeal and I hope you get there. Bon chance (or is it bonne?)

  2. Pip Post author

    Hi Greta, I don’t know yet if it’s bon or bonne – I’ll get back to you on that!

    It’s a similar situation for high schools now, only reversed. Japanese was taught to my kids all through primary school. In high school the choice is Japanese or Indonesian. In some of the larger public highs schools you may get a European language – German, Italian or French – but they are being bumped out by Mandarin and the ubiquitous Japanese.

    Any sort of language learning is a plus, but I understand your point about trying to find a personal way into a language, some link that speaks to you. I guess German is close to Dutch. The problem, as you point out, is the necessity to use what you’ve learned otherwise you’ll forget. And that’s hard for Australians with no family links to any European culture. Hence the Alliance Francais…

    I think most Australian kids don’t see the point of a second language. They aren’t faced with the same porous borders of Europe and don’t care to learn say Afghani or Iranian so they can converse with new arrivals. We are a relentlessly Anglo country, even parts of the US have street signs in English and Spanish.

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